The Letter to the Romans
In the next six or seven issues of the Intercessor, I will present a detailed study of the Letter to the Romans. I will interpret the letter verse by verse for the most part, focusing mainly upon those points relevant for us today in our daily lives.
The letter to the Romans contains the core of Paul’s gospel, summarizing all its main themes. But the letter was not written primarily as a book of theology, but as a letter of introduction. Paul wanted the Roman churches to be adequately introduced and accurately informed about him and his gospel. Paul had many opponents in the early church, people who spread false rumors about him and his message and who sought to undermine the truth that he preached (see Phil. 1:15-17; 2 Tim.4: 14-15). For this reason, Paul wishes to lay out the nature of his gospel before the Roman congregation, so that they would know precisely how he interpreted the gospel as God’s authoritative messenger and apostle. We must keep in mind that, although Paul knew some of the people in the Roman churches (see chapter 16), the majority of the people in the Roman churches did not know Paul personally, since he was not responsible for the founding. We must also remember that he was writing not to a single church but to a large number of small house churches that may have been no larger than ten to twenty people in size. These churches were probably started by Jewish Christians who had come from Jerusalem, though by the time Paul wrote (54-57 A.D.), there were now many Gentiles in the churches. The reason that Paul is introducing himself in this manner is that he intends to visit Rome, impart a spiritual gift to them (Rom. 1:12-13), and to reap a harvest of new converts by his preaching (1:13). A letter of introduction will pave the way for Paul so that when he does visit them, his preaching may be unhindered by theological disputes. Eventually Paul wishes to use Rome as a base for further missionary travels in the Western part of the Roman Empire, particularly Spain (Rom. 15:23-24,28), just as he used Antioch as a base for his mission to Greece and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).
PAUL, A SLAVE, NOT AN INDEPENDENT SELF
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul begins with a long greeting to the Roman congregation (1:1-15). He introduces himself first, not as an apostle, but as a slave of Christ Jesus. Many translations seek to soften the harshness of this phrase with "servant," but the real meaning is "slave." It is difficult for us to imagine the offensiveness of this description to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who highly valued their personal freedom. They would never have called themselves slaves to their gods. Rome had had no king for five hundred years before Christ and would not consider them-selves slaves to any tyrant or king. The slave was the lowest member of society, without even the right to name himself. Although ancient slavery was riot as cruel as American slavery, nevertheless a slave in that time had no personal rights. A slave had no choices in his life except to obey the will of his master. In this single word "slave," Paul introduces from the outset that we are not independent selves who have the right to live our own life as we please with our own possessions, our career, our reputation and our inadequacies. From the beginning of the letter Paul is attacking the idolatrous pride of our inflated egos. We don’t get to have a self of our own, that we can define for ourselves what kind of selves we intend to be and how we are going to live our lives. If Paul as a great apostle called himself a slave of Jesus Christ, who are we to claim more for ourselves?
PAUL AS A VESSEL SET APART
A slave is identified by his master and by the work that the master has given him. Paul is a slave of Jesus Christ and to the commission that has been given to him to be an apostle and to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (1:1,5). Paul’s status as an apostle is not an exalted and lofty one, but rather is the task given him as a slave of Jesus Christ. Paul is a vessel that has been "set apart" or "sanctified" for a specific purpose of his master (1:2). Therefore, Paul cannot claim that his is superior to others by virtue of this calling, for the task of apostleship is merely the way in which the Lord has decided to use him as an instrument and vessel. The glory goes to the Lord who has decided to use Paul in this way: "Through Him (Jesus) and for His name’s sake, we received the grace of apostleship" (1:5). Paul’s apostolic calling was a result of God’s grace to him, the undeserved gift of God. So Paul considers being a slave of Jesus a gift from God and not an intolerable burden.
WE DON’T CHOOSE OUR TASKS
Therefore, as a slave, Paul does not choose the task given him, but is "called" or commissioned by God to be an apostle. Since we are not independent selves, we also do not get to choose the manner in which God uses us to extend His kingdom over the world. We can be sure that we will be used in this great purpose if we walk in faith, but what role we play is entirely up to our all-wise and sovereign Lord and Master. Every believer is called to participate in Christ’s intercession for the salvation of the world. We are called to be saints or holy ones, called to belong to Jesus Christ (1:6). To be holy means that God has withdrawn us as His vessels from ordinary use and set us apart for the exalted task of being His instruments in bringing the gospel to a world that is headed for hell.
WHAT IS AN APOSTLE?
Specifically, Paul was called to be an apostle. An apostle in the strict sense of the term is one who "has been sent" or "commissioned" by God to be a witness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:4-7). Only those who had seen the resurrected Christ could be called apostles. Having been taught the truth of the gospel by our infallible Lord Himself, they were qualified to preach and teach what they had seen and heard to the rest of the church. Only apostles and prophets were qualified to convey new revelation, which has been recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. When that generation of apostles died, the church received no further revelation, since the foundation of the gospel had been completed with the Newe Testament (Eph. 2:20). Thus the church only had apostles in the strict sense only at the very beginning. But an apostle in a broader sense can also refer to one who is commissioned by God to be the founder or builder of God’s church in a previously unevangelized area where the gospel had never been heard before.
PAUL’S GOSPEL TO THE NATIONS
Paul is called to he the apostle of a very specific message, and is set apart for the very specific purpose of preaching this message to the world, especially to the non-Jews or Gentile nations (1:5). Paul describes this gospel as one which was promised by God before-hand through the prophets (1:2). Paul mentions this fact because he wants the Roman churches to know that the gospel he preaches is the fulfillment of God’s intentions and plans from the beginning and is not something new. In fact, what Paul is implying is that the Old Testament can now only be under-stood in terms of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All previous actions and words of God find their ultimate meaning in the salvation brought through Jesus. Thus, whether they understood it or not, the writers of the Old Testament were testifying to what God would accomplish in Jesus’ death, resurrection and enthronement at God’s right hand. But now the gospel or "the good news" has come that God has already begun to fulfill all His promises in the Scriptures. If history is like a book, then the death and resurrection of Jesus is its climax, the turning point in which the decisive action or event of the story takes place. Up until this point, human history has been a story of sin and defeat, but now God has taken decisive action to overpower the enemies of humanity, namely sin, death and the devil.
This gospel is the gospel regarding God’s Son, "who according to the flesh was a descendant of David, but who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the son of God by His resurrection from the dead" (1:2-4). Paul is not distinguishing Jesus’ humanity from His deity here, but rather is distinguishing His life on earth from His exalted status after His resurrection. In other words, although he was a descendant of David while in the body, His true exalted status was revealed when the Holy Spirit raised Him from the dead: he was declared to be the son of God in power. What this means for us is that Jesus has now been exalted to a position where he may intercede effectively on our behalf and pour out His Holy Spirit on us, the spirit which now lives His life through us. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are as important to our salvation as His death. Without the resurrection, jesus could not live His life through us. Jesus’ exaltation as Son of God, means that the Spirit of the Son can go forth into our hearts to live our lives (Rom. 8:14-16; Gal. 4:4-7).
THE OBEDIENCE OF FAITH
Because Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand as Son of God and Lord, Paul has now received the mission of proclaiming this good news to the nations, of calling them to the obedience of faith (1:5). This phrase, "the obedience of faith," could have several interpretations. One is that Paul is to call the Gentiles to the obedience of believing, that is, their obedience consists in believing the gospel which Paul has brought to them. An alternative explanation is that Paul is to call the Gentiles to the obedience that springs from faith. In this case, Paul is referring not merely to belief in the truth of the message but to the lived-out obedience that is the fruit of the gospel. God doesn’t just desire to save us from hell, but, as will become clear in the rest of Romans, He desires our salvation from sin. So I think it is more likely that Paul’s gospel is a call to the obedience which springs from faith.
Paul is not ashamed of this gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (1:16). Paul has no reason to be ashamed because through the gospel, God saves people powerfully and effectively from sin, guilt, death and the devil. Only if our God were in some manner deficient or inadequate would Paul then have reason to be ashamed of the gospel, for then God would not be able to deliver what He promises in the gospel, namely eternal life. Infinite power and wisdom is required for this task, since the human situation as Paul describes it in the following verse (1:18-32) is utterly hopeless. Human beings are unable to save themselves from the consequences of their own sins, not even wishing to be saved. But the gospel is God’s effective power to transform the world by decisively dealing with the problem of sin.
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD (1:17)
The word "for" in 1:17 indicates that Paul is giving the reason why the gospel is God’s effective power for the salvation of those who believe: For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is entirely by faith (1:17). This righteousness is not something from God, as if it were something separable from Himself that He could give away. The gospel is effective because in it God reveals His attribute of righteousness. What is the righteousness of God? In the Scriptures, righteousness is not some kind of impartial standard to which the actions of God and human beings can be compared and judged. In fact, God is above all standards and His actions and decisions cannot be judged by us unless we arrogantly assume the right to judge God. Nor is God’s righteousness a mere reference to His justice, for if God only revealed His justice in the gospel, He would give us all the just penalty for our sins, namely condemnation and death. Instead, righteousness is God’s commitment to glorify Himself or His name. In Ps. 143:11, the psalmist prays: "For the sake of thy name, O Lord, revive me. In thy righteousness bring my soul out of trouble." When God promises a new covenant of salvation for the people of Israel in the book of Ezekiel, he promises to do so not for their sake, not because of any righteousness that they may possess, but because God is concerned for His holy name (Ezek.36:20-32). Above all He will not see His reputation and character blackened and blasphemed by us. He must respond passionately to sin either through judgement of that sin in awesome displays of wrath or in having mercy. Human sin is God’s opportunity to glorify Himself either by righteously judging sin or by having mercy upon us, that all may know the greatness and glory of God’s character, both in His wrath and in His mercy. God does not save human beings because they deserve to be saved, for in fact we deserve only condemnation and hell. On what grounds can God be expected to save us from the consequences of our own sins, except for God’s fundamental commitment and motivation to always display the glory of who He is, the wonders of His name? So when Paul says that the gospel is God’s effective power for salvation for those who believe because in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he means that his gospel is powerful because God is fundamentally motivated to glorify Himself by saving sinners and having mercy on them. The reason we can have faith in God is not fundamentally because He loves us, but because God’s own honor or glory is at stake if He fails to fulfill His promises. His love for us and desire to save us is not based on anything in us, for there is nothing in us that would inspire such steadfast unswerving love. It is only because God is unswerving in His fundamental motivation to glorify His own name, to display to the fullest all aspects of His character including mercy, that His love can be trusted. For if God’s desire to save me depended on my worthiness to receive it, what hope would I have? Thus the basis of the gospel’s effective power to save human beings is the righteousness of God, or His fundamental commitment to always display and uphold the gory of His character.
RIGHTEOUS BY FAITH (1:18)
Paul says that his righteousness is from faith to faith, and supports this with a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 that the righteous will live by faith. If righteousness is a characteristic of God, then faith is the means by which we benefit from God’s commitment to His own glorification. It is our trust in God’s reputation as a merciful and loving God that glorifies God and moves Him to save us, just as Paul says in Rom. 10:13, "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Thus we become righteous by faith, and participate in God’s own righteousness because we believe and trust God to be who He has said He is. We become righteous because God’s own fundamental motivation to glorify Himself becomes our own desire to see Him expressed and glorified in our lives. And this can only happen if we trusts His character in every way, particularly His mercy in saving us from eternal condemnation and his faithfulness in living out His life through us. The phrase, "The righteous shall live by faith," is therefore the theme of the letter, introducing the main ideas that will occupy his attention for the rest of the epistle.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 10 No 5
- God’s Tight Corners
- Postscript to Yes I Am
- Editor’s Note
- Off With The Grave Clothes
- A New Creation
- Excerpt from The Intercession of Rees Howells
- Moments with Meryl
- To Think About
- The Letter to the Romans
- Questions & Answers
- Life Out of Death
- The Mailbox
- New Light on the Twelve Steps
- A Look at A Book
- Words to Live By