Out of Paul’s life and into his head. This ought to be interesting, having just finished Acts to enter into Paul’s magnum opus, his letter to the Romans.
Do you get the idea, reading Romans 1, that Paul thinks that the gospel of Jesus Christ is important? More than important, the gospel of Jesus Christ is to Paul an all-consuming passion that is intimately connected to Paul’s life and to the life of God’s people before and after Paul.
There’s a temptation for us Protestants to want to jump immediately to Romans 1:17, to the exclusion of everything else. Which is precisely why I’m not going to jump there. The way I figure it, you’ve probably already heard a lot of sermons and Bible studies on it, and so I don’t want to focus exclusively on it. When my brother was in graduate school at Wheaton College he took a lot of Bible courses and church history courses. He came back from Wheaton always talking about “doing violence to the text.” I would never want to do violence to the text (except maybe to a text like The Da Vinci Code or something like it!), and so let me begin in the beginning.
Paul doesn’t just begin to talk about justification by faith out of the blue: he begins in a very personal way. When we read Paul’s letters (not wanting to do violence to the text), we should always read them in the context of Paul’s life. I have a radical idea: what if we actually begin at verse 1?
“Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God, which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord . . . .”
The gospel, for Paul, isn’t something outside of him: it’s almost as if the gospel is an inseparable part of Paul himself. Paul understands himself to be someone who has been separated to the gospel of God. Separated, set aside, holy. Surely, Paul is remembering the road to Damascus on which the separation to holiness and apostleship and the gospel to which God had elected Paul became very real and alive. When Paul says “called,” he means called. For Paul, this took the form of an audible voice.
This gospel is Paul’s, and yet it’s much larger than he is, for he acknowledges that it was promised before through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures. It’s as if Paul sees the entire plan of God’s and his part in it and boldly and courageously accepts God’s call on his life.
But this gospel and call are closer still. The call of the gospel on Paul’s life is not some intellectual idea that has taken hold of him: it’s a Person who called him and knocked him down and became a part of his life. The Christ whose gospel Paul has been separated to is the Christ through whom Paul and others have received grace and apostleship.
But this gospel that is so close to Paul, this Christ of the gospel, is not Paul’s alone, nor only the prophets. Paul was set aside for obedience to the faith among all the nations. This obedience began with Christ’s obedience, and then Paul’s, and so on . . . and so on . . . . And so the Romans to whom Paul writes are also the called of Jesus Christ (verse 6): “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be his saints” (verse 7). There it is again, the calling of Jesus Christ to be holy and set apart for His purposes.
The Christ who has so forcefully entered Paul’s life has also entered the life of the Roman saints. Christ is in Paul and Christ is in the Romans, and so Paul is in the Romans and the Romans in Paul. For this reason, Paul thanks God through Jesus Christ because the faith of the Romans is spoken throughout the whole world, and for this reason they are a part of him in his prayers, and he is a part of them.
He longs to see them, because they are one in Christ, and he longs to impart some spiritual gift because he has been taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Paul in the Romans and the Romans in Paul, because all in Christ. And so Paul can long to come to them because in coming to them he finds Christ and in his coming the Romans find Christ. And Paul can know that when he comes they will be encouraged together because they have the same Holy Spirit who dwells in them all and makes them all one in Christ. Their faith also is a mutual faith, for it is a common and united faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what happens when you put together those whom Christ has set aside by His call.
And now we come to that more famous part of Romans 1, but only after we understand Christ in Paul: “the just shall live by faith.” Paul doesn’t really say that much about this phrase at this point, although he returns to it later. But here’s the bridge between verse 17 and Paul’s union with Christ through His gospel: “it [the gospel] is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (verse 16).
I think we have a tendency to think of the gospel as a “thing,” a set of propositions about God, the Word of God as a commodity that is imprisoned in paper pages and books. It is an object outside of us and something we objectify.
But to Paul, the gospel seems to be nothing less than Jesus Christ Himself, so that the gospel is not merely about Jesus Christ: it conveys or even is Jesus Christ. The gospel is not just a bunch of words or propositions: Paul says it is the power of God to salvation.
And yet this Christ who is God comes to us in mere words after all. We must hear the gospel, but in hearing, it goes into us. Will it stay? Will it become a part of us? If it does, it cannot remain mere words but must become the Word of God to us.
How? By faith. This faith, mysterious as it is, has the power to apprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ Himself. This faith, invisible as it is, has the power to see the invisible and make it real, and it has the power to receive the power of God to salvation, which is the gospel, which is Christ.
This faith, mysterious as it is, simply says “Yes” to God and all that God says, and in saying “Yes” to God we say “Yes” to life, and so the just, those made righteous, shall live by faith. I think this can be taken in two equally wonderful ways, and I see no need to choose one over the other, for they are one. It means that by faith we initially receive God and His power of salvation by saying “Yes” to Him, but it also means that we continue to live by faith, to receive God and His power of salvation by continuing to say “Yes” to Him and His call and gospel.
So, then, what do we have? That the gospel is not just a thing but also a Person, and this Person is the One who calls you by His Word and Gospel. That by saying “Yes” to this Person, by saying “Yes” to His Word (faith), we receive life, and that by continuing to say “Yes” to Him by faith we continue to have life in Him. And that by saying “Yes” to Him we are united to Him and therefore joyfully united to all who also say “Yes” to Him who is the “Yes” and through whom all the promises of God are “Yes.”
They say that all roads lead to Rome, but in the book of Romans, all roads lead to Christ!
Prayer: Lord, I believe: I wish to believe in Thee.
Lord, let my faith be full and unreserved, and let it penetrate my thought,
my way of judging Divine things and human things.
Lord, let my faith be joyful and give peace and gladness to my spirit,
and dispose it for prayer with God and conversation with men,
so that the inner bliss of its fortunate possession may shine forth in sacred and secular conversation.
Lord, let my faith be humble and not presume to be based on the experience of my thought and of my feeling; but let it surrender to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Pope Paul VI)
Point for Meditation:
1. How well and how much have I been saying “Yes” to God with my life?
2. Meditate on the mystery of faith and how Christ has come to you and works through your hearing Him in His Word.
Resolution: I resolve to find one way to say “Yes, I believe and will obey” to Christ today.