Paul’s Three Purposes – Romans 1

YouTube video sermon

Romans 1:14-17

Well, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to the Book of Romans.  I’m excited and nervous, both at the same time, because we’re going to begin a new sermon series that will take us through this monumental epistle.  It’s a book of the Bible that will change us, if we’ll listen carefully.  When we finish this series (sometime in late July or August) we should know Jesus more clearly, understand the gospel more thoroughly, pursue grace more passionately, feel it more deeply, hate sin more completely, and understand more fully God’s gift of salvation to a spiritually lost and dying world.

I say that it can change us, because that’s what it’s been doing for hundreds of years.  On the first page of my Greek testament of Romans, I have scribbled at the top of the page a few significant dates.  The first one is the year 386 A.D.  There, in the latter part of the 4th century, was this young man, whose father was a pagan and whose mother was a devout Christian.  And yet, this man had devoted his youthful years to immorality.  He had already fathered one son out of wedlock, and yet his mother continued to pray for his soul as she sought the counsel of her pastor, Bishop Ambrose, of Milan.

One day, this young man was walking in a courtyard garden when he overhead some children playing.  They were singing the refrain from one of their childhood games, and the words went like this: “Tolle Lege!  Tolle Lege!”, which literally means “take up, and read.”  And so, this young man, whose name was Aurelius Augustine, better known as Augustine of Hippo or St. Augustine, believing the words to be a message from God, found a copy of the Scriptures and read the first passage that his eyes came upon.

By the sovereign providence of Almighty God, the Bible opened to Romans 13:11-14 and these were the words that he read, “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  So, let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

As Augustine read these words, the Spirit of God took these words and pierced between joint and sinew, bone and marrow, to the very depths of this young man’s soul, and by the power of the Word of God, with the Spirit attending it, Augustine became a passionate follower of Christ.

Later on, in Church History, in the year 1515, an Augustinian monk who had diligently pursued his doctoral studies in the works of St. Augustine, was consigned to the university to be the professor of biblical studies.  He had already delivered his first series of lectures on the Book of Psalms, and now his task was to teach his students the Book of Romans.

But he was tormented, because he believed that his sin was the only true thing about him and that God was only and always judging him.  In fact, if he was honest, he hated God and he hated reading books like Romans because he’s read about the justice and righteousness of God.  And he understood those things to only mean that he was being punished.

Yet, as he prepared his lectures and continued to study Romans in those years, he came to realize that he had been wrong.  He found that God’s righteousness was not just God judging him, but it was also God saving him.  Martin Luther wrote these words in his own commentary on the Book of Romans, “For the first time, I understood the gospel of Christ and the doors of paradise were swung open and I walked through.”

It was from Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that Luther stood against the entire world and sparked the Protestant Reformation.

The final date that I have is 1738, when a man, who was already ordained to the gospel ministry in the Anglican Church of England, heard a reading of Martin Luther’s commentary preface to Romans at Aldersgate Street in London and said that he “felt his heart strangely warmed.”  He said that was the moment of his authentic conversion – the conversion that defined the life and ministry of one John Wesley.

I could go on and tell you about the life of Jonathan Edwards and countless others who had their lives changed as a result of this book.  It’s the book that John Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early church, would have read to him twice a week.  This is why Martin Luther says, in his commentary on Romans, that not only should all followers of Jesus know Romans by heart, but should deal with it daily as with daily bread of the soul.

John Calvin said that if you understand this epistle, then “you have a light and a window into all of the Scriptures.”  And these types of comments aren’t just limited to theologians and preachers.  The great poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said, “I think Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most profound book in existence.”  People say these things about Romans because it changes people.  That’s why I’m excited and nervous, all at the same time.  Excited for what God can do, and nervous because of who I am in light of who God is.

Now, with that as our introduction, let me say just a little something about the approach I’m going to try to take.  We’re going to look at all 16 chapters, but we’re not going verse-by-verse.  We don’t have time for all of those details.  So, my goal is to say enough.  I can’t say everything, and that’s fine.  I want to say enough – enough to spark your thought and help you think things through, enough, if you’re reading this with your family and friends, to generate conversation and discussion.

Really, my goal is to say enough to send you back to the text of Romans, back to your open Bibles knowing more than you did before so that you can open up the Scriptures and – with the help of the Holy Spirit – find what God has for you in this amazing epistle.

In the time that we have left this morning, however, I want to offer us three purposes for why Paul (via the Holy Spirit) wrote this letter.  And to do that I want us to look at the middle of chapter 1.  We’ll come back to chapter 1 next week, and perhaps even the following week, but this morning let’s give our attention to verses 14-17.  Paul writes,

“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.  That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is from faith to faith just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

And when we begin to unpack this, we find the first purpose is to clarify the gospel.

Clarify the Gospel

No matter what you’re doing in life or where you find yourself on the road of life, there are certain things that you just need to have in place, you just need to know.  For example, if you’re going to wait tables, you kind of need to understand that your job is to get the right food to the right people at the right tables.  Or, if you’re going skydiving, you kind of need to know ahead of time which one of these cables releases the parachute (unless you’re on a static line: stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door, jump right out and shout “Marine Corps!” but that’s a sermon for another day and another audience).

See, if you want to be a Christian, you kind of need to know what the gospel is.  If we want to be a real, true, faithful church this is 101.  We gotta get the gospel, and we gotta get it right.  And one of the reasons that Paul is writing this great letter is to clarify and communicate clearly what the gospel is.  And if you look at the words that he uses, he says he’s not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.

So, let’s consider a few words.  First, he uses the word “gospel,” then he says it’s the “power for salvation,” and lastly, he says it’s for everyone who “believes.”  Now this is just a quick overview.  We’re going to see Paul unpack these things in more detail later, and if, as we walk through this, you feel like this is just a little overwhelming that’s okay.

It’s kind of like going on a field trip or taking a vacation and visiting a historical site.  Often, before you actually see the place or thing that you came to see, you’ll watch a little primer video.  When I’m watching those videos, sometimes I feel like, “Okay, I don’t really understand what you’re talking about because I haven’t seen the thing yet.  Let’s just get started.”  This is kind of like Paul’s pre-tour video.  Let’s look closer at these words.

The word “gospel” in Greek is euaggelion.  It literally means “good news.”  Good things have happened.  Events have taken place that mean good news for you.  Paul’s understanding of this “good news,” this gospel, is found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promised that good news would be preached when He took back over control of this world and righted the wrongs and delivered His people.

So, it’s a word that looks backward in time, but it also looks forward to the Roman media.  They would use this word a lot.  It was kind of a political word.  They would use this word to describe the glory of Rome, and the greatness of Augustus and other great leaders.  Rome is now running the world and this is “good news” for you.  That’s the secular meaning.  That’s the word “gospel.”

And Paul says that in the gospel he’s proclaiming, the gospel he’s clarifying, the gospel he’s communicating, it’s the power of God for salvation.  This gospel does something, and what it does is it saves people.  The word “salvation” in Greek is sótéria.  You might have been around church long enough to here pastors and theologians and teachers use the word soteriology.  That’s just a fancy short-hand way of talking about the doctrine of salvation.  It comes from the root word sṓzō, which means “to save, rescue.”  So, the gospel (Good News) that Paul is clarifying has the power to rescue you or save you.

Finally, Paul says that it’s for everyone who believes.  And that word “believe” is the Greek word pístis, which is the word for faith.  Again, some of you have been around church circles long enough to hear the word epistemology.  That’s a fancy word that refers to the doctrine or study of belief or faith.  So, to put all of this together – the Good News (gospel) that Paul is proclaiming has the power to save/rescue, and it’s available to everyone who believes.

But that’s not Paul’s only purpose in writing this letter.  It’s possibly his greatest purpose, but there are two more and the second is to connect the church.

Connect the Church

This is kind of easy to skate past, but you don’t want to.  Notice how verse 16 ends.  Paul says that the Good News (gospel) he’s preaching is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes; first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”  If you’ve ever read Romans you’ve noticed this, and if you read it you’ll see it.  Over and over again you read Jews/Gentiles… Gentiles/Jews.  Why?

Well, back in the late 30’s A.D., Christianity makes its way to Rome almost exclusively because of the Jews that have heard about it elsewhere and have moved into the city.  The church begins to grow – mostly Jews, but also some Gentiles – but predominately Jews, and therefore the church has a Jewish style to it, a Jewish flavor.

Then, in 49 A.D. the emperor expels the Jews, probably because of some tenson and conflict between the Jews and the non-Jews.  And although we don’t know if all the Jews left, we do know that enough of them left that the remaining church looked less Jewish and more Gentile.  They didn’t change the message, but they undoubtedly changed the color of the carpet and introduced some contemporary music and let the minister wear blue jeans with his shirt untucked.

Five years later, in 54 A.D. there’s a new emperor in town and he lets the Jews return.  They’re glad to come back, but when they get back to their home church it doesn’t look like it used to.  Now, you have one style following Jesus and another style following Jesus (and you just thought denominationalism was a modern issue) and they have to find a way to make the two styles mesh.  I don’t think they were divided, but there was definitely some tension.  And Paul writes this letter in 56-57 A.D. to try and connect the church.  He’s clarifying the gospel with a practical purpose in mind.

And that leads us to the last purpose, which is to confirm God’s righteousness.

Confirm God’s Righteousness

That’s what verse 17 is focused on, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is from faith to faith just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”  In that single verse the word “righteous” or “righteousness” is used three times.  So, what does it mean?  Well, it’s basically a legal term.  It’s attorney language.  It’s courtroom jargon.  Literally speaking it means “judicial approval,” or the “approval of God.”  And Paul is interested in confirming two aspects of God’s righteousness – His integrity (as judge) and His faithfulness (as promise keeper).

Since God is the judge, He has to have integrity in order to punish wrongdoing and reward good.  That’s a judge’s job.  But He’s also a promise keeper.  So, if God promises to save the world through the nation of Israel, which He did through Abraham’s family (this one particular nation), if God promises this then He has to do it.  And if He doesn’t do it, then He’s not righteous.  So, Paul is talking about the legal aspect and the covenant aspect, because Jesus was something of a surprise.

On the surface, it kind of looks like Jesus is letting people off the hook.  On the surface, it kind of looks like God is going outside of the Old Testament and doing something different, and that’s why Paul writes to demonstrate the consistency of God’s character and His plan from Old Testament to New Testament, from beginning to end.

While God may not have called each of us to be the apostle to the Gentiles, or to lead a reformation that transforms Western civilization, He has called us to something.  The question is: Has our conversion to Christ made us new creatures for the sake of the kingdom of God?  Do we identify with Christ, His people, and the gospel so much that it’s as if our old self no longer exists?  Do those who know us become more aflame for the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ?  Do they sense that (for us) the Bible is not just some book on a shelf, or a fancy accessory to our outfit, but a means to an end – a way to connect with the heartbeat of God?

May our hearts grasp afresh the vision that consumed the Apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.  May we sense our love for God and each other and the gospel grow in such a fashion that our friends and family and strangers would hunger – maybe for the first time – for the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.