1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was born ⌊a descendant⌋ of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared Son of God in power according to ⌊the Holy Spirit⌋ by the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship for the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles on behalf of his name, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ. 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God, called to be saints. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Harris, W. H., III, Ritzema, E., Brannan, R., Mangum, D., Dunham, J., Reimer, J. A., & Wierenga, M. (Eds.). (2012). The Lexham English Bible (Ro 1:1–7). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
The Good News of God—part 1
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, (1:1)
A quick look at any newspaper or passing glance at a weekly news magazine reminds us that in our world most news is bad and seems to be getting worse. What is happening on a national and worldwide scale is simply the magnification of what is happening on an individual level. As personal problems, animosities, and fears increase, so do their counterparts in society at large.
Human beings are in the hold of a terrifying power that grips them at the very core of their being. Left unchecked, it pushes them to self-destruction in one form or another. That power is sin, which is always bad news.
Sin is bad news in every dimension. Among its consequences are four inevitable byproducts that guarantee misery and sorrow for a world taken captive. First, sin has selfishness at its heart. The basic element of fallen human nature is exaltation of self, the ego. When Satan fell, he was asserting his own will above God’s, five times declaring, “I will …” (Isa. 14:13–14). Man fell by the same self-will, when Adam and Eve asserted their own understanding about right and wrong above God’s clear instruction (Gen. 2:16–17; 3:1–7).
By nature man is self-centered and inclined to have his own way. He will push his selfishness as far as circumstances and the tolerance of society will allow. When self-will is unbridled, man consumes everything and everyone around him in an insatiable quest to please himself. When friends, fellow workers, or a spouse cease to provide what is wanted, they are discarded like an old pair of shoes. Much of modern western society has been so imbued with the propriety of self-esteem and self-will that virtually every desire has come to be considered a right.
The ultimate goal in many lives today is little more than perpetual self-satisfaction. Every object, every idea, every circumstance, and every person is viewed in light of what it can contribute to one’s own purposes and welfare. Lust for wealth, possessions, fame, dominance, popularity, and physical fulfillment drives people to pervert everything they possess and everyone they know. Employment has become nothing more than a necessary evil to finance one’s indulgences. As is often noted, there is constant danger of loving things and using people rather than loving people and using things. When that temptation is succumbed to, stable and faithful personal relationships become impossible. A person engulfed in self-will and self-fulfillment becomes less and less capable of loving, because as his desire to possess grows, his desire to give withers. And when he forfeits selflessness for selfishness, he forfeits the source of true joy.
Selfish greed progressively alienates a person from everyone else, including those who are closest and dearest. The end result is loneliness and despair. Everything that is craved soon yields to the law of diminishing returns, and the more one has of it the less it satisfies.
Second, sin produces guilt, another form of bad news. No matter how convincingly one tries to justify selfishness, its inevitable abuse of things and other people cannot escape generating guilt.
Like physical pain, guilt is a God-given warning that something is wrong and needs correcting. When guilt is ignored or suppressed, it continues to grow and intensify, and with it come anxiety, fear, sleeplessness, and countless other spiritual and physical afflictions. Many people try to overcome those afflictions by masking them with possessions, money, alcohol, drugs, sex, travel, and psychoanalysis. They try to assuage their guilt by blaming society, parents, a deprived childhood, environment, restrictive moral codes, and even God Himself. But the irresponsible notion of blaming other persons and things only aggravates the guilt and escalates the accompanying afflictions.
Third, sin produces meaninglessness, still another form of bad news and one that is endemic to modern times. Trapped in his own selfishness, the self-indulgent person has no sense of purpose or meaning. Life becomes an endless cycle of trying to fill a void that cannot be filled. The result is futility and despair. To questions such as, “Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is truth?” he finds no answers in the world but the lies of Satan, who is the author of lies and prince of the present world system (cf. John 8:44; 2 Cor. 4:4). In the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem “Lament,” he can only say, “Life must go on; I forget just why.” Or, like the central character in one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels, he may say nihilistically, “I decided to kill myself to remove at least one superfluous life.”
A fourth element in sin’s chain of bad news is hopelessness, which is the companion of meaninglessness. The consumptively selfish person forfeits hope, both for this life and for the next. Although he may deny it, he senses that even death is not the end, and for the hopeless sinner death becomes therefore the ultimate bad news.
Millions of babies are born every day into a world filled with bad news. And because of the boundless selfishness that permeates modern society, millions of other babies are not allowed to enter the world at all. That tragedy alone has made the bad news of the modern world immeasurably worse.
The tidbits of seemingly good news are often merely a brief respite from the bad, and sometimes even what appears to be good news merely masks an evil. Someone once commented cynically that peace treaties merely provide time for everyone to reload!
But the essence of Paul’s letter to the Romans is that there is good news that is truly good. The apostle was, in fact, “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest of the gospel of God” (Rom. 15:16). He brought the good news that in Christ sin can be forgiven, selfishness can be overcome, guilt can be removed, anxiety can be alleviated, and life can indeed have hope and eternal glory.
In his Romans letter Paul speaks of the good news in many ways, each way emphasizing a uniquely beautiful facet of one spiritual gem. He calls it the blessed good news, the good news of salvation, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s Son, and the good news of the grace of God. The letter begins (1:1) and ends (16:25–26) with the good news.
The entire thrust of the sixteen chapters of Romans is distilled into the first seven verses. The apostle apparently was so overjoyed by his message of good news that he could not wait to introduce his readers to the gist of what he had to say. He burst into it immediately.
In Romans 1:1–7 Paul unfolds seven aspects of the good news of Jesus Christ. He first identifies himself as the preacher of the good news (v. 1), which will be discussed in this present chapter. He then tells of the promise (v. 2), the Person (vv. 3–4), the provision (v. 5a), the proclamation (v. 5b), the purpose (v. 5c), and the privileges of the good news (vv. 6–7).
The Preacher of the Good News
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, (1:1)
God called a unique man to be the major spokesman for His glorious good news. Paul was God’s keynote speaker, as it were, for heralding the gospel. A singularly gifted man, he was given divine “insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4), “the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints” (Col. 1:26). That remarkable Jew with Greek education and Roman citizenship, with incredible leadership ability, high motivation, and articulate expression, was specially and directly called, converted, and gifted by God.
Paul crisscrossed much of the Roman Empire as God’s ambassador of the good news of Christ. He performed many healing miracles, yet was not relieved of his own thorn in the flesh. He raised Eutychus from the dead but was at least once left for dead himself. He preached freedom in Christ but was imprisoned by men during many years of his ministry.
In the first verse Paul discloses three important things about himself in regard to his ministry: his position as a servant of Christ, his authority as an apostle of Christ, and his power in being set apart for the gospel of Christ.
paul’s position as a servant of christ
a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, (1:1a)
Doulos (bond-servant) carries the basic idea of subservience and has a wide range of connotations. It was sometimes used of a person who voluntarily served others, but most commonly it referred to those who were in unwilling and permanent bondage, from which often there was no release but death.
The Hebrew equivalent (‘ebed) is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament and carries the same wide range of connotations. The Mosaic law provided for an indentured servant to voluntarily become a permanent bond-slave of a master he loved and respected. “If a slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently” (Ex. 21:5–6).
That practice reflects the essence of Paul’s use of the term doulos in Romans 1:1. The apostle had given himself wholeheartedly in love to the divine Master who saved him from sin and death.
In New Testament times there were millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, the vast majority of whom were forced into slavery and kept there by law. Some of the more educated and skilled slaves held significant positions in a household or business and were treated with considerable respect. But most slaves were treated much like any other personal property of the owner and were considered little better than work animals. They had virtually no rights under the law and could even be killed with impunity by their masters.
Some commentators argue that because of the great difference between Jewish slavery as practiced in Old Testament times and the slavery of first-century Rome, Paul had only the Jewish concept in mind when speaking of his relationship to Christ. Many of the great figures in the Old Testament were referred to as servants. God spoke of Abraham as His servant (Gen. 26:24; Num. 12:7). Joshua is called “the servant of the Lord” (Josh. 24:29), as are David (2 Sam. 7:5) and Isaiah (Isa. 20:3). Even the Messiah is called God’s Servant (Isa. 53:11). In all of those instances, and in many more in the Old Testament, the term servant carries the idea of humble nobility and honor. But as already noted, the Hebrew word (˒ebed) behind servant was also used of bond-slaves.
In light of Paul’s genuine humility and his considering himself the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), it is certain that he was not arrogating to himself the revered and noble title of servant of the Lord as used in the citations above. He considered Himself Christ’s bond-servant in the most unassuming sense.
There is, of course, an honor and dignity attached to all of God’s true servants, even the most seemingly insignificant, and Paul was very much aware of the undeserved but real dignity God bestows on those who belong to Him. Yet he was constantly aware also that the dignity and honor God gives His children are purely from grace, that in themselves Christians are still sinful, depraved, and undeserving. He wrote to the Corinthian church, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Cor. 3:5). Here Paul uses the term diakonos to describe his position as servant, a term commonly used of table waiters. But as in his use of doulos, the emphasis here is on subservience and insignificance, not honor. Later in the same letter he asks his readers to regard him as a galley slave (4:1). The term used here is hupēretēs (“servants”) which literally means “underrowers,” referring to the lowest level of rowers in the large galley of a Roman ship. This was perhaps the hardest, most dangerous, and most demeaning work a slave could do. Such slaves were considered the lowest of the low.
Because he was called and appointed by Christ Himself, Paul would never belittle his position as an apostle or even as a child of God. He plainly taught that godly leaders in the church, especially those who are diligent in preaching and teaching, are “worthy of double honor” by fellow believers (1 Tim. 5:17). But he continually emphasized that such positions of honor are provisions of God’s grace.
paul’s authority as an apostle
called as an apostle, (1:b)
Paul next establishes the authority of his ministry, based on his being called as an apostle. Perhaps a better rendering would be “a called apostle,” which more clearly points up the fact that his position as an apostle was not of his own doing. He did not volunteer for that office, nor was he elected by fellow believers. He was divinely called by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
While Paul, then called Saul, was still blinded from his miraculous encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, the Lord said to Ananias about Paul: “He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). In relaying the message to Paul, Ananias said, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:14–15). Paul later gave the additional revelation that Christ already had given that message directly to him, saying,
Arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me. (Acts 26:16–18)
Paul told the Corinthian believers, “I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). God had given him a task he had never dreamed of and had never asked for, and he knew he would be in serious trouble if he was not obedient to his divine commission.
Paul was “an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead)” (Gal. 1:1). He went on to declare, “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (v. 10).
Apostle translates apostolos, which has the basic meaning of a person who is sent. It referred to someone who was officially commissioned to a position or task, such as an envoy or ambassador. Cargo ships were sometimes called apostolic, because they were dispatched with a specific shipment for a specific destination.
The term apostle appears some seventy-nine times in the New Testament and is used in a few instances in a general, nontechnical sense (see Rom. 16:7; Acts 14:14). In its broadest sense, apostle can refer to all believers, because every believer is sent into the world as a witness for Christ. But the term is primarily used as a specific and unique title for the thirteen men (the Twelve, with Matthias replacing Judas, and Paul) whom Christ personally chose and commissioned to authoritatively proclaim the gospel and lead the early church.
The thirteen apostles not only were all called directly by Jesus but all were witnesses of His resurrection, Paul having encountered Him on the Damascus Road after His ascension. Those thirteen apostles were given direct revelation of God’s Word to proclaim authoritatively, the gift of healing, and the power to cast out demons (Matt. 10:1). By these signs their teaching authority was verified (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12). Their teachings became the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), and their authority extended beyond local bodies of believers to the entire believing world.
Although the apostles were “the sent-ones” in a unique way, every person who speaks for God must be called and sent by Him. There are many people preaching, teaching, and presuming to prophesy in Christ’s name whom Christ has clearly not sent. They obviously have no anointing of God because their teachings and living do not square with God’s Word.
False prophets have always plagued God’s people. They corrupted ancient Israel, they have corrupted the church through all the centuries of its existence, and they continue to corrupt the church today. Through Jeremiah the Lord said of such impostors, “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied” (Jer. 23:21).
Some religious leaders not only give no evidence of being called by God to preach and teach in His name but even give little evidence of salvation. In his book The Reformed Pastor, seventeenth-century Puritan pastor Richard Baxter devotes a hundred pages to warning preachers of the gospel to be sure first of all that they are truly redeemed and second that they have been called by God to His ministry.
paul’s power in being set apart for the gospel
set apart for the gospel of God, (1c)
Because Paul was called and sent by God as an apostle, his whole life was set apart in the Lord’s service. Even a person who has been called by God to a special type or place of service cannot be effective if he is not also separated unto God for the gospel of God.
Throughout the Old Testament, God provided for the setting apart of His chosen people. To the entire nation He declared, “You are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). Just before He delivered His people from Pharaoh’s Army the Lord commanded: “You shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord” (Ex. 13:12). God also demanded the first-fruits of their crops (Num. 15:20). The Levites were set apart as the priestly tribe (Num. 8:11–14).
In the Septuagint (Greek) version of the above passages from Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, the words translated “present,” “lift up,” and “set apart” are all forms of aphorizō, the term Paul used for his being set apart. It is used of setting apart to God the firstborn, of offering to God first fruits, of consecrating to God the Levites, and of separating Israel to God from other peoples. There was to be no intermingling of the chosen people with the Gentile nations or of the sacred with the profane and ordinary.
The Aramaic term Pharisee may share a common root with aphorizō and carries the same idea of separation. The Pharisees, however, were not set apart by God or according to God’s standards but had rather set themselves apart according to the standards of their own traditions (cf. Matt. 23:1, 2).
Although Paul himself had once been the most ardent of the self-appointed Pharisees, he was now set apart divinely, not humanly. God revealed to him that he had been set apart by God’s grace even from his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15). When he and Barnabas were set apart and commissioned for missionary work by the church in Antioch, it was on the direct instruction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2).
Paul’s clear understanding of this separateness comes through in his writing to Timothy. Timothy was a genuine servant of God, and he had been personally discipled by Paul and succeeded him as pastor of the church at Ephesus. But at some point in his ministry he may have come dangerously close to being ineffective, perhaps because of fear of opposition or because of temporary weakness. Paul therefore exhorted his beloved friend, “I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:6–7). He may also have been tempted to be ashamed of the gospel and of Paul, as suggested in Paul’s saying to him, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Perhaps because Timothy became distracted from his primary work of preaching and teaching the Word and had become involved in fruitless disputes with unbelievers or immature believers, Paul admonished him further, saying, “Avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness” (2:16). It is even possible that Timothy was in danger of falling into some form of immoral behavior, prompting Paul to warn: “Flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2:22).
Despite Timothy’s high calling and remarkable training, Paul feared that his young disciple was capable of slipping back into some worldly ways. Like many Christians, he discovered that life can appear to be easier and less troublesome when compromises are made. Paul had to remind him that he was set apart by God for God’s work and for no one else and for nothing else.
The term euangelion (gospel) is used some sixty times in this epistle. William Tyndale defined it as “glad tidings” (Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures by William Tyndale, Henry Walter, ed. [Cambridge: University Press, 1848], p. 484). It is the good news that God will deliver us from our selfish sin, free us from our burden of guilt, and give meaning to life and make it abundant.
The most important thing about the gospel is that it is of God. Paul makes that clear in the first sentence of his epistle in order that his readers have no confusion regarding the specific good news about which he was speaking. Euangelion was a common term used in the cult of emperor worship that was common in Paul’s day. Many of the Caesars claimed deity for themselves and demanded worship from every person in the empire, free or slave, rich or poor, renowned or unknown. Favorable events relating to the emperor were proclaimed to the citizens as “good news.” The town herald would stand in the village square and shout, “Good news! The emperor’s wife has given birth to a son,” or, “Good news! The emperor’s heir has come of age,” or, “Good news! The new emperor has acceded to the throne.”
Especially because he was writing to believers in the Roman capital, Paul wanted to be certain that his readers understood that the good news he proclaimed was of an entirely different order than the trivial and vain proclamations concerning the emperors. The fact that it was of God meant that God was the source of it. It was not man’s good news, but God’s good news for man.
One cannot help wondering why God would condescend to bring good news to a world that rejects and scorns Him. No one deserves to hear it, much less to be saved by it.
The noted expository preacher Donald Grey Barnhouse told the fascinating legend of a young Frenchman who was dearly loved by his mother but in early manhood fell into immorality. He was greatly enamored of an unprincipled woman who managed to gain his total devotion. When the mother tried to draw her son away from the wicked and debased association, the other woman became enraged. She railed at the young man, accusing him of not truly loving her and insisting that he demonstrate his commitment to her by getting rid of his mother. The man resisted until a night when, in a drunken stupor, he was persuaded to carry out the heinous demand. According to the story, the man rushed from the room to his mother’s house nearby, brutally killed her, and even cut out her heart to take to his vile companion as proof of his wickedness. But as he rushed on in his insane folly, he stumbled and fell, upon which the bleeding heart is said to have cried out, “My son, are you hurt?” Dr. Barnhouse commented, “That is the way God loves” (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], pp. 21–22).
Paul himself was living proof of God’s great love and mercy. Though he had opposed Christ and persecuted the church, God had made him the Church’s chief spokesman. He could imagine no greater role than being set apart to God for the proclamation of His gospel, the good news of salvation in Christ. Perhaps that is one reason he was so effective. Who knew better than Paul just how good the good news really was?
The Good News of God—part 2
which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, (1:2–4)
After introducing himself as the preacher of the good news of God (v. 1), Paul then tells of the promise (v. 2) and the Person (vv. 3–4) of the good news.
The Promise of the Good News
which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, (1:2)
The gospel, which originated with God, was not a divine afterthought, nor was it first taught in the New Testament. It does not reflect a late change in God’s plan or a revision of His strategy. It was promised by God beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, that is, in what we now call the Old Testament.
Perhaps especially for the sake of his Jewish critics, Paul emphasizes in the very beginning of the epistle that the good news did not originate with him or even with Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was frequently accused of preaching and teaching against Moses and of proclaiming a revolutionary message unheard of in ancient Judaism (cf. Acts 21:20ff). But here he makes clear that the good news he teaches is really old news of the Hebrew Scriptures now fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s use of prophets refers to the Old Testament writers in general, all of whom were spokesmen for God, which is the basic meaning of prophets. Moses, for instance, was the great lawgiver, yet he also considered himself a prophet (Deut. 18:15). Paul’s reference to the holy Scriptures was probably to contrast the divinely-inspired Old Testament from the many rabbinical writings which in his day were studied and followed more zealously than was Scripture. In other words, although the rabbinical writings said little or nothing about the gospel of God, the holy Scriptures had a great deal to say about it. They did not originate with men or reflect the thinking of men, but were the divinely-revealed Word of the living God.
Most Jews of that day were so accustomed to looking to rabbinical tradition for religious guidance that the holy Scriptures were looked on more as a sacred relic than as the source of truth. Even after His three years of intense teaching, Jesus had to chide some of His own disciples for failing to understand and believe what the Scriptures taught about Him. Before He revealed His identity to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). And as He proceeded to teach them about His death and resurrection, He expounded Scripture (v. 27, cf. v. 32).
It was a defective traditional Judaism that was revolutionary, man-originated, man-centered, and that was not grounded in the holy Scriptures. And it was the proponents of that man-made perversion of Judaism who most strongly opposed Jesus. He denounced the religious devotion of the scribes and Pharisees as being hypocrisy rather than piety and their theology as being the false tradition of men rather than the revealed truth of God.
The phrases “You have heard that it was said” and “You have heard that the ancients were told” that Jesus frequently used in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43) did not refer to the Old Testament but to rabbinical traditions that contradicted and invalidated the Old Testament (Matt. 15:6).
It is estimated that the Old Testament contains at least 332 prophecies about Christ, most of which were fulfilled at His first coming. The Old Testament is filled with truths that predict and lay the groundwork for the New.
Jesus taught nothing that was either disconnected from or contrary to the Old Testament. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He declared; “I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17–18).
Throughout the history of the church Jews have resisted the gospel by arguing that to embrace it would be to deny their heritage. On the human level that is true, because since long before Jesus’ day, popular Judaism has been based more on human tradition that on divine revelation. To become a Christian certainly demands denial of a heritage such as that. But for a Jew to embrace the gospel is for him to truly inherit what his scriptural heritage has always promised. The Jew’s greatest heritage is the promise of God’s Messiah, and Jesus is that Messiah, the fulfillment of that promise. Every Jewish prophet, directly or indirectly, prophesied of the ultimate Prophet, Jesus Christ. Every Jewish sacrificial lamb spoke of the ultimate, eternal Lamb of God who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world.
Confronting that same issue, the writer of Hebrews opens his letter by declaring, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). Peter also accentuated that same truth in his first letter:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:10–12)
The prophets spoke generally of the anticipated new covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27) as well as specifically of the Messiah who would bring that covenant (cf. Isa. 7:18; 9:6, 7; 53:1–12).
The Person of the Good News
concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, (1:3–4)
Both of those verses emphasize the divine sonship of Christ. There is a great mystery in the concept of Jesus as God’s Son. Although He is Himself God and Lord, He is yet the Son of God. Because Scripture plainly teaches both of those truths, the issue has to do not with whether He is the Son of God but in what sense He is God’s Son.
Clearly, in His humanness Jesus was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh. Both Mary (Luke 3:23, 31), Jesus’ natural mother, and Joseph (Matt. 1:6, 16; Luke 1:27), Jesus’ legal father, were descendants of David.
In order to fulfill prophecy (see, e.g., 2 Sam. 7:12–13; Ps. 89:3–4, 19, 24; Isa. 11:1–5; Jer. 23:5–6), the Messiah had to be a descendant of David. Jesus fulfilled those messianic predictions just as He fulfilled all others. As the descendant of David, Jesus inherited the right to restore and to rule David’s kingdom, the promised kingdom that would be without end (Isa 9:7).
The second Person of the Trinity was born into a human family and shared human life with all other humanity, identifying Himself with fallen mankind, yet living without sin (Phil. 2:4–8). He thereby became the perfect high priest, wholly God yet also wholly man, in order that He could “sympathize with our weaknesses, … one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). That is the gospel, the great good news, that in Jesus Christ God became a Man who could die for all men, a substitute sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (Rom. 5:18–19).
Even secular history is replete with reports of Jesus’ life and work. Writing about a.d. 114, the ancient Roman historian Tacitus reported that Jesus was founder of the Christian religion and that He was put to death by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Annals 15.44). Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan on the subject of Jesus Christ and His followers (Letters 10.96–97). Jesus is even mentioned in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a, Abodah Zerah 16b-17a).
Writing in a.d. 90, before the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation, the familiar Jewish historian Josephus wrote a brief biographical sketch of Jesus of Nazareth. In it he said,
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call Him a man: for He was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to Him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned Him to the cross, those that loved Him at the first did not forsake Him; for He appeared to them alive again the third day as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning Him. And the tribe of Christians so named from Him are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities, vol. 2, book 18, chap. 3)
An even more reliable witness was the apostle John, who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:2–3).
John was not speaking of merely recognizing the fact of Jesus’ humanity. Countless unbelievers throughout history have been quite willing to concede that a man named Jesus lived in the first century and that He lived an exemplary life and generated a large following. The deist Thomas Jefferson believed in Jesus’ existence as a man and in His importance to human history, but he did not believe in Jesus’ divinity. He produced an edition of the Bible that eliminated all references to the supernatural. Consequently, the accounts of Jesus in Jefferson’s “gospels” pertained to purely physical facts and events.
That is hardly the kind of recognition God’s Word demands. The apostle was referring to believing and accepting the truth that Jesus was the Christ, the promised divine Messiah, and that He came from God and lived as a God-man among men.
It was at the time that He became a human being, Paul says, that Jesus was declared the Son of God. Though the plan was eternal, the title Son is reserved as an incarnational term, applied to Jesus in its fullness only after He put on the robe of humanity. He was the Son of God in the sense of oneness of essence and in the role of dutiful, loving submission to the Father in His self-emptying incarnation. There is, of course, no question that He is eternally God and eternally the second Person of the Godhead, but Paul says He was declared God’s Son when He was supernaturally conceived in Mary and was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh. We could say, then, that Christ was the Son of God from eternity in expectation and was declared God’s Son in fulfillment at the incarnation and forever.
Horizō (declared) carries the basic idea of marking off boundaries. From that term comes our English horizon, which refers to the demarcation line between the earth and the sky. In an infinitely greater way, the divine sonship of Jesus Christ was marked off with absolute clarity in His incarnation.
Quoting Psalm 2:7, the writer of Hebrews explains that in that text God was declaring to Christ, the Messiah, “Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee.” In the subsequent quotation from 2 Samuel 7:14, the Father goes on to say of Christ, “I will be a Father to Him, and He shall be a Son to Me” (Heb. 1:5). Both verbs in the last quotation are future tense, indicating that, sometime after the psalmist’s time, Christ one day would assume a title and role He had not had before.
Psalm 2:7 is also quoted by the apostle Paul in Acts 13:33. This passage points to the resurrection as the declaration of that Sonship. This is not a contradiction. From God’s viewpoint He was begotten as Son when He came into the world. The reality of that oneness with God and the perfection of His service to God was publicly declared to the world by the fact that God raised Him from the dead! (For a more detailed discussion, see the author’s commentary on Hebrews, pp. 24–29.)
Christ was given and took upon Himself the fullness of the title of Son of God when he divested Himself of the independent use of His divine prerogatives and the full expression of His majesty, graciously humbling Himself and becoming fully subservient to the will and plan of the Father. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul explains that, “Christ Jesus, … although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, … being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).
In His high priestly prayer Jesus said to the Father, “Glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee,” and a few moments later implored, “Glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:1, 5). Christ has existed from all eternity. “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:2–3). But in accord with the divine plan of redemption, which He Himself planned with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Christ “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (v. 14a). He still possessed some of His divine glory, the “glory as of the only begotten from the Father” (v. 14b), but the glory He retained was a glory veiled in human flesh that could not be observed with human eyes.
As Paul goes on to explain, the most conclusive and irrefutable evidence of Jesus’ divine sonship was given with power by the resurrection from the dead (cf. Acts 13:29–33). By that supreme demonstration of His ability to conquer death, a power belonging only to God Himself (the Giver of life), He established beyond all doubt that He was indeed God, the Son.
According to the spirit of holiness is another way of saying “according to the nature and work of the Holy Spirit.” It was the Holy Spirit working in Christ who accomplished Jesus’ resurrection and every other miracle performed by Him or associated with Him. In the incarnation, Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of holiness.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, “the heavens were opened, and he [John the Baptist] saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased’ ” (Matt. 3:16–17). All members of the Trinity were eternally equal in every way, but as mentioned above, in the incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity willingly divested Himself of the expression of the fullness of divine glory and the prerogatives of deity. During His humanity on earth He willingly submitted to the will of the Father (cf. John 5:30) and to the power of the Spirit. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him at His baptism was Jesus’ initiation into ministry a ministry totally controlled and empowered by the Spirit, so much so that Jesus characterized willful rejection of Him as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:24–32).
Here, then, is the Person of the good news. He is fully man (a descendant of David) and fully God (declared to be the Son of God). Throughout His ministry, both Jesus’ humanness and His divinity were portrayed. When asked to pay taxes, Jesus complied. He explained to Peter that, as God’s Son and the rightful ruler of the universe, including the Roman Empire, He was rightfully exempt from taxation. “But lest we give them [the tax collectors] offense,” He went on to say, “go to the sea, and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matt. 17:27). In His humanness He willingly paid taxes, but in His divinity He provided the payment supernaturally.
One evening after a long day of teaching Jesus got into a boat with the disciples and they set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus soon fell asleep, and when a storm arose and threatened to capsize the boat, the frightened disciples awakened Jesus, crying, “ ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?’ And being aroused, He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.’ And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm” (Mark 4:38–39). In His humanness Jesus was exhausted just as every person becomes exhausted after a hard day’s work. Yet in His divinity He was able to instantly calm a violent storm.
As He hung on the cross, Jesus was bleeding and in severe agony because of His humanness. Yet at the same time, in His divinity He was able to grant eternal life to the repentant thief who hung nearby (Luke 23:42–43).
This Son of God and Son of Man who was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit was Jesus Christ our Lord, Paul declares. Jesus means Savior, Christ means Anointed One, and Lord means sovereign ruler. He is Jesus because He saves His people from their sin. He is Christ because He has been anointed by God as King and Priest. He is Lord because He is God and is the sovereign ruler of the universe.
The Good News of God—part 3
through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:5–7)
The story is told of a very wealthy man who had many valuable art treasures. His only son was quite ordinary but was dearly loved. When the son died unexpectedly as a young man, the father was so deeply grieved that he died a few months later. The father’s will stipulated that, at his death, all his art works were to be publicly auctioned and that a painting of his son was to be auctioned first. On the day of the auction the specified painting was displayed and the bidding was opened. Because neither the boy nor the artist were well known, a long time passed without a bid being offered. Finally, a long-time servant of the father and friend of the boy timidly bid seventy-five cents, all the money he had. When there were no other bids, the painting was given to the servant. At that point the sale was stopped and an official read the remainder of the will, which specified that whoever cared enough for his son to buy the painting of him would receive all the rest of the estate.
That touching story illustrates God’s provision for fallen mankind. Anyone who loves and receives His Son, Jesus Christ, will inherit the heavenly Father’s estate, as it were. The good news of God is that everyone who receives His Son by faith is blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). That is why Paul could exult, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Quoting Isaiah, the apostle declared that the Christian’s riches include “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Isa. 64:4; 65:17).
In Christ, the believer has riches beyond any imagination. The Christian has life that will never end (John 3:16), a spring of spiritual water that will never dry up (John 4:14), a gift that will never be lost (John 6:37, 39), a love from which he can never be separated (Rom. 8:39), a calling that will never be revoked (Rom. 11:29), a foundation that will never be destroyed (2 Tim. 2:19), and an inheritance that will never diminish (1 Pet. 1:4–5).
In Romans 1:5–7 Paul continues to summarize that good news, describing its provision (v. 5a), its proclamation and purpose (vv. 5b–6), and its privileges (v. 7).
The Provision of the Good News
through whom we have received grace and apostleship (1:5a)
Paul here mentions two important provisions of the good news of God: conversion, which is by God’s grace, and vocation, which in Paul’s case was apostleship.
It is possible that Paul was speaking of the specific grace of apostleship, but it seems more probable that he was referring to, or at least including, the grace by which every believer comes into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
Grace is unmerited, unearned favor, in which a believer himself does not and cannot contribute anything of worth. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul explains in his Ephesian letter; “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Grace is God’s loving mercy, through which He grants salvation as a gift to those who trust in His Son. When any person places his trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, God sovereignly breathes into that person His own divine life. Christians are alive spiritually because they have been born from above, created anew with the very life of God Himself.
A believer has no cause for self-congratulation, because he contributes nothing at all to his salvation. Human achievement has no place in the divine working of God’s saving grace. We are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24), a redemption in which man’s work and man’s boasting are totally excluded (vv. 27–28).
Salvation does not come by baptism, by confirmation, by communion, by church membership, by church attendance, by keeping the Ten Commandments, by trying to live up to the Sermon on the Mount, by serving other people, or even by serving God. It does not come by being morally upright, respectable, and self-giving. Nor does it come by simply believing that there is a God or that Jesus Christ is His Son. Even the demons recognize such truths (see Mark 5:7; James 2:19). It comes only when a person repenting of sin receives by faith the gracious provision of forgiveness offered by God through the atoning work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The great preacher Donald Grey Barnhouse observed, “Love that gives upward is worship, love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace” (Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], p. 72). In an unimaginable divine condescension, God looked down on sinful, fallen mankind and graciously offered His Son for its redemption (John 3:16–17).
The dying words of one ancient saint were, “Grace is the only thing that can make us like God. I might be dragged through heaven, earth, and hell and I would still be the same sinful, polluted wretch unless God Himself should cleanse me by His grace.”
Another provision of the good news of God is His calling believers into His service, which is a form of apostleship. Paul opens the epistle by speaking of himself, and he resumes his personal comments in verses 8–15. In verses 2–4 he speaks about Jesus Christ. But from the end of verse 4 through verse 7 he is speaking about believers in general and about those in Rome in particular. Paul had already mentioned his own calling and office as an apostle (v. 1), and it therefore seems reasonable to launch from this reference to his apostleship to discuss God’s divine calling and sending of all believers.
The Greek term apostolos, which normally is simply transliterated as apostle, has the basic meaning of “one who is sent” (cf. the discussion in chapter 1). God sovereignly chose thirteen men in the early church to the office of apostle, giving them unique divine authority to proclaim and miraculously authenticate the gospel. The writer of Hebrews even refers to Jesus Christ as an apostle (Heb. 3:1).
But every person who belongs to God through faith in Christ is an apostle in a more general sense of being sent by Him into the world as His messenger and witness. In an unofficial sense, anyone who is sent on a spiritual mission, anyone who represents the Savior and brings His good news of salvation, is an apostle.
Two otherwise unknown leaders in the early church, Andronicus and Junias, were referred to by Paul as being “outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (Rom. 16:7). Luke refers to Barnabas as an apostle (Acts 14:14). The term apostolos is also applied to Epaphroditus (“messenger,” Phil. 2:25) as well as to some unnamed workers in, or known by, the church in Corinth (“messengers,” 2 Cor. 8:23). But those men, godly as they were, did not have the office of apostleship as did Paul and the Twelve. Andronicus, Junias, Barnabas, and Epaphroditus were apostles only in the sense that every believer is an apostle, a called and sent ambassador of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes an athletically inept student will be put on a team out of sympathy or to fill a roster, but the coach will rarely, if ever, put him in a game. God does not work that way. Every person who comes to Him through His Son is put on the team and sent in to play the game, as it were. Everyone who is saved by God’s sovereign grace is also sovereignly called to apostleship. The Lord never provides conversion without commission. When by grace we “have been saved through faith,” Paul explains, it is not ourselves but “is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” But as he goes on to explain, when God saves us we thereby become “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). Later in that same epistle Paul entreats believers “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (4:1).
A victor at an ancient Greek Olympic game is said to have been asked, “Spartan, what will you gain by this victory?” He replied, “I, sir, shall have the honor to fight on the front line for my king.” That spirit should typify everyone for whom Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.
After one of D. L. Moody’s sermons, a highly educated man came to him and said, “Excuse me, but you made eleven mistakes in your grammar tonight.” In a gracious rebuke Moody replied, “I probably did. My early education was very faulty. But I am using all the grammar that I know in the Master’s service. How about you?” On another occasion a man came up to Mr. Moody and said, “I don’t like your invitation. I don’t think it’s the right way to do it.” “I appreciate that,” Moody responded. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with it, too. I wish I knew a better way. What is your method of inviting people to Christ?” “I don’t have one,” the man replied. “Then I like mine better,” the evangelist said. Whatever our limitations may be, when God calls us by His grace, He also calls us to His service.
In reflecting on his ordination into the Presbyterian ministry, Barnhouse wrote:
The moderator of the Presbytery asked me questions, and I answered them. They told me to kneel down. Men came toward me, and one man was asked to make the prayer. I felt his hand come on my head, and then the hands of others, touching my head, and pressing down on his and the other hands. The ring of men closed in, and one man began to pray. It was a nice little prayer and had one pat little phrase in it, “Father, guard him with Thy love, guide him with Thine eye, and gird him with Thy power.” I kept thinking about those three verbs, guard, guide, gird. It seemed as foolish as performing a marriage ceremony upon two people who had been living together for a quarter of a century and who had had a family of children together. I knew that I had been ordained long since, and that the Hands that had been upon my head were Hands that had been pierced, and nailed to a cross. Years later the man that made the prayer that day signed a paper saying that he was opposed to the doctrine of the virgin birth, the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of the miracles of Christ, and the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures, as tests for ordination or a man’s good standing in the ministry. When I read his name on the list, I put my hand on the top of my head and smiled to myself, wondering how many dozen times I had had my hair cut since his unholy hands had touched me. And I had the profound consolation of knowing that the hand of the Lord Jesus Christ, wounded and torn because of my sins, had touched me and given me an apostleship which was from God and which was more important than any that men could approve by their little ceremonies. (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], pp. 76–77. Used by permission.)
Dr. Barnhouse’s account reminds me of my own ordination. Before being approved, I was interviewed by a number of men who asked me all kinds of questions concerning such things as my call, my knowledge of Scripture, and my personal beliefs and moral standards. At the ordination service those men gathered around me and placed their hands on my head. Each man then prayed and later signed his name to the ordination certificate. The first name on the certificate was written considerably larger than the others. But not long afterward, that man who signed first and largest abandoned the ministry. He became involved in gross immorality, denied the virtue of the faith, and became a professor of humanistic psychology at a prominent secular university. Like Dr. Barnhouse, I give thanks to God that my ministry did not come from men but from Christ Himself.
The Proclamation and Purpose of the Good News
to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; (1:5b–6)
to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, (1:5b)
Like Paul, every believer is called not only to salvation and to service but to witness for Christ in order to bring about the obedience of faith in others. Paul uses the phrase “obedience of faith” again at the end of the letter, saying that “the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25–26).
A person who claims faith in Jesus Christ but whose pattern of life is utter disobedience to God’s Word has never been redeemed and is living a lie. Faith that does not manifest itself in obedient living is spurious and worthless (James 2:14–26). We are not saved in the least part by works, no matter how seemingly good; but as already noted, we are saved to good works. That is the very purpose of salvation as far as our earthly life is concerned (Eph. 2:10). The message of the gospel is to call people to the obedience of faith, which is here used as a synonym for salvation.
Although Paul does not use the definite article before faith in this passage, the idea is that of the faith, referring to the whole teaching of Scripture, especially the New Testament. It is what Jude refers to as “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). That faith is the Word of God, which is the only divinely-constituted authority of Christianity. Affirmation of that faith leads to the practical, lived-out faithfulness without which a professed faith is nothing more than dead and useless (James 2:17, 20). Genuine faith is obedient faith. To call men to the obedience of faith is to fulfill the Great Commission, to bring men to Jesus Christ and to the observance of everything He commands in His Word (Matt. 28:20).
It is not that faith plus obedience equals salvation but that obedient faith equals salvation. True faith is verified in obedience. Obedient faith proves itself true, whereas disobedient faith proves itself false. It is for having true faith, that is, obedient faith, that Paul goes on to commend the Roman believers. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all,” he says, “because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). He gives a similar commendation at the end of the letter. To his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, most of whom he had never met, he says, “The report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you” (16:19). In the first instance Paul specifically commends their faith, and in the second he specifically commends their obedience. Together, faith and obedience manifest the inseparable two sides of the coin of salvation, which Paul here calls the obedience of faith.
God has many titles and names in Scripture, but in both testaments He is most frequently referred to as Lord, which speaks of His sovereign right to order and to rule all things and all people, and most especially His own people. To belong to God in a relationship of obedience is to recognize that salvation includes being in submission to His lordship. Scripture recognizes no other saving relationship to Him.
Some years ago, as I was riding with a professor at a well-known evangelical seminary, we happened to pass an unusually large liquor store. When I made a comment about it, my companion said it was one of a large chain of liquor stores in the city owned by a man that went to his church and was a regular attender of an adult Sunday school class. “As a matter of fact, he is in my discipleship group,” my friend said; “I meet with him every week.” “Doesn’t the kind of business he is in bother you?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We talk about that frequently, but he feels that people who drink are going to buy their liquor somewhere and that it might as well be in his stores.” Taken aback, I asked, “Is the rest of his life in order?” He replied, “Well, he left his wife and is living with a young woman.” “And he still comes to church and discipleship class every week?” I asked in amazement. The professor sighed and said, “Yes, and you know, sometimes it’s hard for me to understand how a Christian can live like that.” I said, “Have you ever considered that he may not be a Christian at all?”
A theology that refuses to recognize the lordship of Jesus Christ for every believer is a theology that contradicts the very essence of biblical Christianity. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord,” Paul declares, “and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Rom. 10:9–10). With equal clarity and unambiguity, Peter declared at Pentecost, “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is that faith without obedience is not saving faith, but is certain evidence that a person is following the wide and delusive road of the world that leads to destruction, rather than the narrow road of God that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:13–14).
On the other hand, merely calling Jesus Lord, even while doing seemingly important work in His name, is worthless unless those works are done from faith, are done in accord with His Word, and are directed and empowered by His Holy Spirit. With sobering intensity, Jesus plainly declared that truth when He said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ ” As He goes on to explain, the person who claims Him but lives in continual disobedience of His Word is building a religious house on sand, which will eventually wash away and leave him without God and without hope (Matt. 7:22–27). Without sanctification—that is, a life of holiness—“no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Paul’s unique calling was to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:21; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 1:16). It is likely that he preached the gospel during his three years in Arabia (Gal. 1:17), but he began his recorded ministry by preaching to Jews. Even when ministering in the basically Gentile regions of Asia Minor and Macedonia, he frequently began his work among Jews (see, e.g., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1; 18:2). As with Paul, the calling of every believer is to proclaim Jesus Christ to all men, Jew and Gentile, in the hope of bringing them to the obedience of faith.
for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ. (1:5c–6)
Although God gave His own Son to save the world (John 3:16) and does not wish for any person to perish (2 Pet. 3:9), it must be recognized that the primary purpose of the gospel is not for man’s sake but God’s, for His name’s sake. Man’s salvation is simply a by-product of God’s grace; its main focus is to display God’s glory.
The preacher (v. 1), the promise (v. 2), the Person (vv. 3–4), the provision (v. 5a), the proclamation (vv. 5b–6), and the privileges (v. 7) of the good news of God are all given for the express purpose of glorifying God. All of redemptive history focuses on the glory of God, and throughout eternity the accomplishments of His redemption will continue to be a memorial to His majesty, grace, and love.
Because of His gracious love for fallen and helpless mankind, salvation is of importance to God for man’s sake, but because of His own perfection it is infinitely more important to Him for His own sake. God is ultimately and totally committed to the exaltation of His own glory. That truth has always been anathema to the natural man, and in our day of rampant self-ism even within the church, it is also a stumbling block to many Christians. But man’s depraved perspective and standards not withstanding, the main issue of salvation is God’s glory, because He is perfectly worthy and it is that perfect worthiness to which sin is such an affront.
Paul declares that one day, “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11). Even the divine truths and blessings that are given for His children’s own sake are first of all given “that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).
When a person believes in Christ, he is saved; but more important than that, God is glorified, because the gift of salvation is entirely by His sovereign will and power. For the same reason, God is glorified when His people love His Son, when they acknowledge His assessment of their sin and their need for cleansing, when their plans become His plans, and when their thoughts become His thoughts. Believers live and exist for the glory of God.
The believers in Rome to whom Paul was writing were among those who had been brought to “the obedience of faith” (v. 5) and therefore were also the called of Jesus Christ. And, as has already been emphasized, the called of Jesus Christ, those who are true believers, are called not only to salvation but to obedience. And to be obedient to Christ includes bringing others to Him in faith and obedience.
The Privileges of the Good News
to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:7)
Among the countless, gracious privileges of the good news of God are those of our being His beloved, our being His called ones, and our being His saints.
Paul here addresses all his fellow believers in Rome as the beloved of God. One of the most repeated and emphasized truths of Scripture is that of God’s gracious love for those who belong to Him. David prayed, “Remember, O Lord, thy compassion and Thy loving-kindnesses, for they have been from of old” (Ps. 25:6; cf. 26:3) and, “How precious is Thy loving-kindness, O God!” (Ps. 36:7). Isaiah exulted, “I shall make mention of the loving-kindnesses of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion, and according to the multitude of His loving-kindnesses” (Isa. 63:7). Through Jeremiah, the Lord told His people, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving-kindness” (Jer. 31:3).
Paul declares that God is “rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5). John writes, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1).
Every believer has been made acceptable to God through Christ, “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). Every believer is a child of God and is loved for the sake of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Paul says that “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Later in the epistle he assures us that nothing can “separate us from the love of Christ,” not even “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (8:35).
Second, those who have come to Christ by the obedience of faith are also the called of God. Paul is not referring to God’s general call for mankind to believe. Through Isaiah He made the appeals “Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (45:22) and “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (55:6). Through Ezekiel He warned, “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!” (Ezek. 33:11). During His earthly ministry, Jesus said to the sinful multitudes, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28) and, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37). From heaven, through the apostle John, Jesus said, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17).
But in Romans 1:7 Paul is not speaking of that general calling but of the specific way in which those who have responded to that invitation have been sovereignly and effectually called by God to Himself in salvation. Called is here a synonym for the terms “elect” and “predestined.” As the apostle explains in chapter 8, those “whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (v. 30). From our limited human viewpoint, it may seem that we first came to God through an act of our will, but we know from His Word that we could not have sought Him by faith unless He had already chosen us by the gracious act of His sovereign will.
The references to being called to salvation are always, in the epistles of the New Testament, efficacious calls that save, never general invitations. Thus calling is the effecting of the plan of election. The doctrine of election is clearly taught throughout the New Testament (cf. Matt. 20:15–16; John 15:16; 17:9; Acts 13:48; Romans 9:14–15; 11:5; 1 Cor. 1:9; Eph. 2:8–10; Col. 1:3–5; 1 Thess. 1:4–5; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:1–2; Rev. 13:8; 17:8, 14).
Third, believers are God’s saints. In the nasb text, as is printed in italics, indicating that the word is not in the original Greek but is supplied. It seems that a better rendering would be to place a comma in place of the as, taking “beloved, “called,” and saints as related but distinct blessings of the believer.
Saints is from hagios, which has the basic meaning of being set apart. In the Old Testament many things and people were divinely set apart by God for His own purposes. The Tabernacle and Temple and all their furnishings—supremely the Ark of the Covenant and the holy of holies—were set apart to Him. The tribe of Levi was set apart for His priesthood, and the entire nation of Israel was set apart as His people. The tithes and offerings of the people of Israel consisted of money and other gifts specifically set apart for God (cf. chap. 1).
Frequently in the Old Testament, however, holy refers to a persons being set apart by God from the world and to Himself, and thereby being made like Him in holiness. To be set apart in that sense is to be made holy and righteous. Whether under the Old or the New Covenant, saints are “the holy ones” of God.
Under the New Covenant, however, such holy things as the Temple, priesthood, Ark, and tithes no longer exist. God’s only truly holy things on earth today are His people, those whom He has sovereignly and graciously set apart for Himself through Jesus Christ. The new temple of God and the new priesthood of God are His church (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9).
In a beautiful benediction to his introductory remarks, Paul says, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The only people who can receive the marvelous blessings of grace and peace are those who are the beloved, the called, and the holy ones of God. Only they can truly call God their Father, because only they have been adopted into His divine family through His true Son, the Lord Jesus Christ..
A Man in Christ
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.…
Lord Lyttleton and Gilbert West were two nineteenth-century English barristers. They were unbelievers who one day took it upon themselves to disprove Christianity. As they discussed their project they decided that there were two main bulwarks of the Christian religion: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the conversion and apostleship of Paul. West undertook to write against the resurrection of Jesus, while Lyttleton’s task was to disprove the factuality of Paul’s conversion.
Each was somewhat rusty in his knowledge of the facts, as unbelievers often are. So one lawyer said to the other, “If we are to be honest in this matter, we should at least investigate the evidence.” They agreed to do this. While they were preparing their books they had a number of conferences, and in one of them West told Lyttleton that there was something on his mind that he felt he should share. He said that as he had been studying the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection he had come to feel that there was something to it, since it was very well attested. Lyttleton replied that he was glad that West had spoken as he had, because on his part he had come to feel that there was some truth in the stories of Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. Later, after they had finished their books and the two met again, Lyttleton said to his friend, “Gilbert, as I have been studying the evidence and weighing it by the recognized laws of legal evidence, I have become satisfied that Saul of Tarsus was converted as the New Testament says he was and that Christianity is true; I have written my book from that perspective.” West replied that in a similar way he had become convinced of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, had come to believe in Jesus, and had written his book in defense of Christianity. Today their books are found in many good libraries.
Few Christians are surprised by this story, but it has at least one unusual element. Since it is clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is foundational to Christianity, it is easy to understand why a nonbeliever like West would want to write a book refuting the resurrection. But the conversion and apostleship of Saint Paul might initially seem to be a much less important matter.
Yet here, as in many other places, first glances are misleading. Paul was not “the founder of Christianity,” as some have called him. Jesus alone deserves that title. Yet Paul is so important as the first and greatest of the church’s missionaries and as the articulator and systematizer of its theology that discrediting his claim to have been called and taught by Christ would seriously undermine Christianity itself. If Paul was not converted as a result of seeing the risen Lord while on the road to Damascus, as he claimed, and if he did not receive his gospel by a direct revelation from Jesus Christ, then Paul was a charlatan, his writings are not true, and Christianity is bereft of its single most important teacher after Christ.
“Paul”—The Man from Tarsus
Here is the man who meets us at the very beginning of our study, in fact at the very first word. In the Greek text, as well as in nearly all the English versions, the first word of this most important New Testament book is “Paul.” It is a miracle that the word is even there. Paul is indeed the writer of this book. But we should remember that it was written to a largely Gentile church and that in his early days Paul was a fanatical Jew who would have little or no concern for any Gentile community, least of all a community that claimed as its Lord a man who had been crucified for blasphemy against the God of Israel only a few years before.
Who was Paul? In an appeal to the Roman commander of the Jerusalem garrison, recorded in Acts, Paul identified himself as a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which he modestly called “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39). Tarsus was a Greek city, the seat of a well-known university. Therefore, since Paul was apparently from a well-to-do family, we must assume that he received an outstanding Greek or pagan education in Tarsus. He shows some evidence of this by occasionally quoting from the pagan poets.
Important as Paul’s Greek education may have been, however, there is no doubt that his education in Judaism was the chief factor in his academic and intellectual development. Paul trained under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem where, as he claimed, he acquired a thorough knowledge of Jewish law and traditions (Acts 22:3). The son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), he became a Pharisee himself and was so zealous for the Pharisaic ideals of righteousness that he undertook a radical persecution of the early church, which he believed opposed those ideals (Acts 22:4–5; Phil. 3:6). Paul thus had the benefits of the best possible secular and religious educations, which led Charles Hodge to insist in his Romans commentary that “Paul, the most extensively useful of all the apostles, was … a thoroughly educated man.”
That is worth highlighting. From time to time Christians become skeptical of secular education or even of natural gifts or talents, supposing that these must be opposed to anything done by God’s Spirit, but it is unfortunate when Christians think this way. It is possible to clarify the matter by asking three questions. First, what man did God most use in the period of history covered by the Old Testament? The answer obviously is “Moses.” Second, what kind of education did Moses have? The answer is “a secular education.” He had the best secular education of his day, being instructed “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” as Stephen observed (Acts 7:22). Third question: What man, aside from Jesus Christ, did God most use in the period of history covered by the New Testament? The answer, again quite obvious, is “Paul,” a man who also had the best possible education of his time, first in Tarsus from pagan teachers, whoever they may have been, and then in Jerusalem from Gamaliel, a Jewish teacher and nonbeliever. The conclusion is that there is nothing wrong with either education, whether Christian or secular, or with natural gifts. On the contrary, one’s talents are God-given, and education is a very great privilege that can enhance them. If we have both, we can thank God for giving them to us.
Still, education in itself is neutral. It can be used for good or for evil. What matters is whether it is given over to God to be used by him as he wills. In his early years Paul used his education and zeal to oppose Christianity. It was only after he had his dramatic encounter with Christ that he was able to use these important tools rightly.
A Servant of Christ Jesus
This leads to the next set of words in Romans: “a servant of Christ Jesus.” I have pointed out that Paul was a thoroughly educated man. But important as that is, it is necessary to add that he was also a thoroughly converted man. Paul had met Jesus Christ, and from that moment he was never his own man. He was a servant of the Lord.
In the earlier years of this century the late J. Gresham Machen, at that time Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a classic study of the apostle Paul titled The Origin of Paul’s Religion. It was a reply to nineteenth-century attacks on Christianity by men who, like the early Lord Lyttleton, recognized the importance of Paul for the formation of Christian thought and the establishing of Christianity but who, because they rejected a supernatural Jesus, found themselves pressed to account for the nature of the apostle’s beliefs. In this book Machen destroyed the liberal views with characteristic thoroughness. On the positive side, he showed that the traditions concerning Paul’s contact with the other apostles are sound and that the teachings of Paul were identical with theirs as well as with the teachings of the Lord. He also showed that Paul was convinced of the factualness of the resurrection. On the negative side, Machen showed that Paul could not have derived his beliefs from his Judaistic background or from paganism. “The religion of Paul was rooted in an event, and … the event was the redemptive work of Christ in his death and resurrection.”
From a scholarly point of view, Machen might have allowed the book to rest there. But the real value of The Origin of Paul’s Religion, in my judgment, is that this distinguished scholar then carried the argument one step further, showing not only that Paul was convinced of the truth of Christianity, including the great doctrine of the resurrection, but that he had been conquered and captivated by the living Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was in love with Jesus Christ, and it was his love for Christ that alone explains the nature and rigor of his life’s work.
Machen wrote, “Paulinism is to be accounted for [by] the love of Paul for his Savior.… The religion of Paul was not founded upon a complex of ideas derived from Judaism or from paganism. It was founded upon the historical Jesus. But the historical Jesus upon whom it was founded was not the Jesus of modern reconstruction, but the Jesus of the whole New Testament and of Christian faith; not a teacher who survived only in the memory of his disciples, but the Savior who after his redeeming work was done still lived and could still be loved.”
The conclusion of Machen’s book, which I have quoted above, is the point of this first important phrase in Romans: “A servant of Christ Jesus.” Paul was a super achiever, after all, so he could have introduced himself by a long list of accomplishments. He could have cited his ancestral tree, his degrees, his success in founding churches—even his writings, since Romans does not seem to have been the first of his letters. But Paul does not do this. Why? It is not because he was embarrassed about these things; he mentions them elsewhere in their proper place. It is certainly not because he did not value them. Paul overlooks these achievements because what he is most concerned about simply overshadows them. Above all else, Paul saw himself as a servant of the Lord.
Paul’s letters are always filled with Jesus, no matter what he is writing about. Some letters, like Romans, are theological in nature. Others, like 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, deal with problems in the churches. Some are personal; some are incidental in nature. Whatever his topic or specific purpose, Paul is always thinking about and relating his message to Jesus.
In the first seven verses of Romans, the first half of Paul’s opening remarks, Jesus is mentioned by name, pronoun, title, or a descriptive phrase eight times: “Christ Jesus” (v. 1), “his Son,” “a descendant of David” (v. 3), “the Son of God,” “Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 4), “him” (v. 5), “Jesus Christ” (v. 6), and “the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).
This provides a very good way of testing our Christianity. Many of us, at least those who take time to read a study of Romans or certain other Bible commentaries, are convinced of the truthfulness of Christianity. Perhaps we can even articulate the doctrines of the faith, as Paul does. We can systematize theology. Ah, but do we love Jesus? Are our thoughts constantly occupied with him? Is he at the forefront? Is he the center? Is he the beginning and the end? When we talk to one another, do we speak often of him? Are we content to let the honors of the world pass by, so long as we can be known as Christ’s servants? This gets very close to what is chiefly wrong with our contemporary Christianity. Our religion is one of personalities, plans, and programs, of buildings, books, and bargains. Because it is not the faith of those who love Jesus, it is shallow and selfish, constantly shifting in the ebbs and flows of cultural standards. As we grow in grace we will think less of these things and more of him who “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Paul’s description of himself as Christ’s servant accomplishes a number of other things that are also worth noting:
- Paul’s description of himself as a servant of Christ puts him in the same category as those to whom he is writing. In other words, it identifies Paul first and foremost as a Christian. One of the great theological terms of Christianity, which Paul will use in his important explanation of the gospel in chapter 3, is “redemption.” In his day it meant to buy in the marketplace, particularly to buy a slave. Slavery to Christ is a special kind of slavery, of course. It is a slavery in which we actually become free. Nevertheless, to become a servant or slave of Christ Jesus is a proper description of what it means to be a Christian. That is why Paul could write to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). When Paul identifies himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus,” he is saying, among other things, “I am like you. Like you, I, too, have been purchased by Christ and am his follower.”
- Paul’s description of himself as a servant of Christ Jesus emphasizes that his chief function as a disciple of Christ is service. This is worth noting, because it is a missing element in many of our fellowships.
Not long ago I was talking with a distinguished Christian whom God has used to found a thriving independent church in Texas. The church is now about twenty-five years old, and, according to my friend, the first fifteen years of its existence were spent in trying to convince everyone that it was the only true church in its city (or at least the only good one), and that the cause of Christ would be best served if those belonging to the other churches would simply leave their fellowships and join it. In those fifteen years the church membership grew from perhaps sixty to a hundred and fifty persons. About that time it dawned on the leaders that the way they had marked out was not self-evidently blessed by God, so they decided to take another tack. Instead of urging people to join them and thus contribute to their ministry, the leaders decided to become a church of servants. This meant giving themselves to whatever good work was being done, wherever it was done, and not being fretful if others got credit or even left the home church to further it. With this attitude the church began to grow, and in the last ten years it has swelled to more than two thousand members.
We should learn from this—and from the apostle Paul, who assumed and modeled a servant role. To be more basic, we should learn from Jesus, who said on one occasion, “… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26–28).
- Paul’s description of himself as a servant of Christ reminds his readers that he is nevertheless Christ’s servant—a servant of Christ first and a servant of man second—and that he is writing to them in this capacity. This anticipates the next of Paul’s phrases.
Called to Be an Apostle
What is an apostle? “Apostle” is one of the least appreciated and even most misunderstood words in the Christian vocabulary. For some it means little more than “disciple.” This is unfortunate, because a misunderstanding of this word involves a misunderstanding of much about Christianity.
The best passage for understanding the meaning of the term apostle is Acts 1:15–26, in which the eleven apostles elected a twelfth to complete their ranks after the treachery and death of Judas. As Peter explained, it was necessary for the replacement to have known the risen Lord and to have been chosen by him for this office. The disciples nominated two who met the first qualification: Joseph Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they drew lots to see whom Jesus himself would select. The choice fell on Matthias. This episode teaches that an apostle was to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that he was also necessarily chosen and equipped by Jesus for this function.
Yet there is more to it even than this. We know that at the very end of the Gospels and at the beginning of Acts, the Lord gives Christians a command we call the Great Commission. It means that we are all to be witnesses to Christ. If this is so, why is the apostolic office a special one? The answer comes from observing the way these chosen representatives of the Lord regarded their office. It is not only that they saw themselves as witnesses. The apostles also knew that they were to witness in an extraordinary, supernatural sense. Because they were apostles, God spoke authoritatively through them, so that what they said as apostles carried the force of divine teaching or Scripture. We see this clearly in Galatians, in which Paul defends his apostleship. At the beginning he stresses the divine origin of his calling, writing, “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). After that he links the nature and authority of the gospel to this office: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, not was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (vv. 11–12).
By calling himself an apostle in Romans, Paul reminds his readers that he is writing as no mere ordinary man but rather as one who has been given a message that should be received by them as the very words of God.
This also has a bearing on ourselves, for it tells us how we are to receive this book and benefit from it. We can study it as a merely human book, of course. That cannot be bad, since Romans is a good piece of writing, one well worth studying, even on limited terms. But if we would profit by it greatly, we must receive it as what it truly is—a message from God to our hearts and minds—and we must obey its teachings, just as we would be obliged to obey God if he should speak to us directly.
Set Apart for the Gospel of God
The third phrase Paul uses to introduce himself to the believers in Rome is “set apart for the gospel of God.” This takes us back to the opening overview of Paul’s life. In the days before his meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a Pharisee, and the meaning of that word is “separation” or “a separated one.” This is the word Paul now uses of his commitment to the gospel. Before he met Christ, Paul was set apart to the Pharisaic traditions. Indeed, he regarded himself as one sublimely set apart. Pharisees crossed the street rather than pass close to some unworthy sinner or vile publican. They held to dietary restraints and sacramental cleansings. The list of things a Pharisee would not do was tremendous. But, when Paul met Christ, a life-shattering change occurred in him. Before, he was separated from all manner of things, and as a result he was self-righteous, narrow, cruel, and obsessive. Afterward, he was separated unto something, unto the gospel. That separation was positive—expansive and joyful, yet humbling. Paul never got over that divinely produced transformation.
Nor should you. Do you know what it is to be released from a negative legalism into the liberation of a positive Christianity? I am sure that in his new calling there were many things that Paul did not do. Certainly he did not make provision for fulfilling fleshly sins. He did not lie or cheat or steal or commit adultery. But Paul never thought of the rejection of these sins as privation, because he had his heart set on something more, and that was so grand a commitment that he always counted his calling to be the greatest of all privileges.
God’s Grand Old Gospel
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.
The most important word in the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Romans is “gospel.” There it occurs six times (vv. 1, 2, 9, 15, 16, 17), and it is important because it is the theme of the epistle. Romans was written to make this great gospel of God more widely known.
We read the word for the first time in verse 1, just nine words into the Greek text. Paul identifies it as “the gospel of God,” to which he has been called and set apart. In verse 2 he elaborates a bit, beginning to explain exactly what this gospel is. It is a gospel “promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son.” That is, it concerns the Lord Jesus Christ. In verse 9 Paul uses a phrase that firms up that definition, calling it “the gospel of his Son” and adding that he desires to preach it with his whole heart. In verses 15 through 17 he speaks again of his eagerness to preach the gospel: “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.…”
The Great Good News
Most of us know that the word gospel (euangelion, Greek) means “good news.” But I am sure that D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is correct when he suggests in his commentary that most of us stop at the definition and do not actually appreciate how good the good news truly is.
To appreciate the goodness of the gospel we should begin with the fact that aside from Christianity the religions of the world are not at all good news. On the contrary, they are very bad news, a burden. We see this merely by looking into the hard, grim faces of the leaders of the world’s other religions—the priests, monks, mullahs, gurus, and holy men who are found in every land and among all races. These are not happy people! And the religions they teach are not happy religions for those who follow them. The reason is not hard to discover. Apart from Christianity all the religions of the world are self-help or “works” religions. That is, they tell you how to find God (or peace, happiness, whatever) by human efforts. If it were possible to do this, religion in general might be good news. But the task is not possible. God is too holy, too removed from us because of his holiness and our sin, for us to reach him. Sin has so great a hold on us that it keeps us from the happiness we long for. A religion based on what you or I can do is comfortless because its requirements become burdens that can never be lifted.
This is what Paul himself had found. He had followed a religion of strictly defined good works and high moral standards. But it had not given him peace or even a true sense of achievement. He says later in this epistle that although he had learned what he should do, he found that he could not do it and so was a very “wretched man” (Rom. 7:24).
In our day many people have recognized this and have therefore sought happiness in the religion of “no religion.” They have become practical atheists, regarding religion as a tool of some people to control others and therefore something that an enlightened society should throw away. At first this “no religion” seems like good news. But the goodness evaporates as soon as we stop to think about it. If there is no God and if we are therefore free to do as we please without any thought of accountability to a divine authority or punishment by him, we seem to be liberated to joyous independence. But if there is no accountability, because there is nobody to be accountable to, what we do with this great “freedom” becomes meaningless. Moreover, if what we do is meaningless, we must be meaningless, too. We are accidental bubbles upon the great cosmic deep, destined only to burst and be forgotten.
“No religion” leads nowhere. It may seem to offer the great good news of human progress, but it actually leaves us with despair over the futility of human existence.
This is where Christianity comes in and proclaims what is really good news. The gospel is good for two reasons. First, it tells us that God is actually there—that he is not merely the figment of human imagination but really exists, that he has made us for fellowship with himself and does hold us accountable for what we do. This gives meaning to life. Second, it tells us that God loves us and has reached out to save us through the work of Jesus Christ. We could not reach God, because our sins separated us from him. But God removed our sins through Christ and so bridged the gap over these very troubled waters. Before, we were groaning after God but could not find him. Now we sing praises to the One who has found us.
Let me make this last point explicitly. Have you ever considered how characteristic it is of Christianity that such large portions of our worship consist of singing praises to God? There is singing in other religions, of course; but it is usually mere chanting, which is itself a religious exercise designed to make the worshiper more “holy” or bring him closer to the deity. Christians do not sing as a good work or as a spiritual discipline. We do not sing to find God. We sing because he has found us and we are happy about it. The very first hymn in many hymnbooks says:
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, his praise forthtell,
Come ye before him and rejoice.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones asks, “Has the gospel come to us like that? Can we say honestly at this moment that this is the greatest and best good news that we have ever heard?” If we cannot say that, it may be because we are not really born again, regardless of our profession. Or it may be that we do not actually appreciate the gospel, because we are not walking very close to God.
A “Promised” Gospel
The second thing Paul says about this gospel, this good news, is that it was “promised beforehand” through God’s prophets. This is an important point because, new as the Christian gospel seemed when it first burst upon our sin-darkened world, the gospel of the salvation of men by God through the work of Jesus Christ was nevertheless no novelty. On the contrary, it was the goal to which all prior revelations of God during the Old Testament period led. We find this affirmed in every surviving example of the apostolic preaching.
- The preaching of Paul. The apostle Paul seems never to have tired of showing this connection when he spoke about the gospel. In the thirteenth chapter of Acts, which gives us the first recorded example of Paul’s preaching, we find Paul reviewing Israel’s history to show (just as he does in Romans 1) that God sent Jesus as a descendant of King David, according to his promise, and that everything that happened to Jesus during the days of his earthly ministry fulfilled the Holy Scriptures. He was condemned and crucified as the prophets had said he would be. Afterward, he was raised from the dead according to these same prophecies. In the latter half of this sermon Paul quotes Psalm 2:7 to prove Christ’s deity: “ ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’ ” (Acts 13:33), and Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10 to confirm that the resurrection was prophesied: “ ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ So it is stated elsewhere: ‘You will not let your Holy One see decay’ ” (vv. 34–35).
At the end of his sermon in Acts 13, Paul warns of the dangers of unbelief, citing Habakkuk 1:5 (“I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe,” v. 41), and announcing that even his proclamation of the gospel to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles had been prophesied in Isaiah 49:6 (“I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth,” v. 47).
We find this same reference to Old Testament teachings elsewhere. When we are told of Paul’s first preaching at Thessalonica, we read, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2–3). Paul also uses this approach in Romans 4, proving the gospel he has explained in Romans 3 on the basis of Old Testament texts about Abraham and King David.
- The preaching of Philip. When we go back a few chapters in Acts and thus to a slightly earlier period in the history of the church, we come to the ministry of the deacon Philip. God used Philip to preach the gospel to an Ethiopian official, and the way he did it was by announcing the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7–8, which the Ethiopian was reading aloud but did not understand:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The story relates that “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35).
- The preaching of Peter. In the early chapters of Acts we have two examples of Peter’s early preaching. The first was at Pentecost, when Peter gave a sermon that was roughly half quotations from the Old Testament; these were explained in the other half of the message. In this sermon Peter quoted Joel 2:28–32 (his chief text, prophesying Pentecost itself), Psalm 16:8–11 (which Paul later quoted in part in his sermon recorded in Acts 13), and Psalm 110:1 (the Old Testament verse most cited in the New). In Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14–36) there are eleven verses of Old Testament quotation and twelve verses of introduction, explanation, and application.
It is recorded in Acts 4:8–12 that Peter also preached on Psalm 118:22, showing that the Old Testament prophesied Jesus’ rejection by Israel and his ultimate glorification by God. “He is,” said Peter, “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone” (v. 11). This was a favorite text for Peter. He used it again in his first letter, in conjunction with Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16.
- The preaching of Jesus Christ. Where did the apostles get this important Old Testament approach to the gospel, particularly since none of their contemporaries seem to have read the Old Testament books in this fashion? There is only one answer. They got it from the Lord Jesus Christ, their master, who saw his life as a fulfillment of Scripture and also taught his disciples to view it in that way. We remember that after the resurrection, when Jesus was walking to Emmaus with two of his followers, he chided them on their slowness to believe what the Old Testament writers had spoken: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” The text continues: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27).
Let me emphasize this point. The gospel is good news, of course. But not only that; it is the good news God has been announcing from the very beginning of his dealings with the human race, up to and including the end of the Old Testament—from Genesis 3:15 (the first announcement of the gospel) to Malachi 4:5 (which speaks of the coming of Elijah as Christ’s forerunner).
This is the key to understanding the entire Old Testament. It is the key to understanding the New Testament. It is the key to understanding all history—God’s saving men and women through the work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as he announced “beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.”
“The Holy Scriptures”
Moreover, it is in the Holy Scriptures that this announcement has been made. This phrase is of tremendous importance because it identifies the place at which the announcement of God’s great good news may be found and highlights its very essence.
First, the announcement of God’s good news is in writing, the writings of the prophets. This means that we are not to look elsewhere for it, as if God had chosen to reveal this news by mystical visions, through inward intimations, or in some other nonbiblical or nonobjective way. We have documents to study and words to ponder and understand. Second, the books of the Bible are special, holy writings, which means they are not mere human compositions but are the very words of God. They are God’s revelation to mankind. As Peter, himself one of the human instruments for God’s giving of the New Testament, wrote: “… no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21). We should be drawn to the Word in faithful study and meditation—if we really believe the Bible to be God’s Holy Scriptures.
I think of how John Wesley expressed his yearning for the Word in that well-known introduction to his sermons:
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God, just hovering over the great gulf, till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity. I want to know one thing—the way to heaven, how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end he came from heaven. He ha[s] written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (“a man of one book”). Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone. Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book—for this end, to find the way to heaven.
I note, as John Murray does in his study of Romans, that the great Karl Barth, usually so perceptive in his exegetical comments, passes over the words Holy Scripture without notice in his commentary. Barth valued the gospel, but he did not fully appreciate the nature of the documents in which this gospel is disclosed. It is a flaw in his theology.
Do not let it be a flaw with you. Recognize, as Paul did, that God has spoken to us in the Bible, and therefore determine to study it carefully and obediently. You should do with it what Francis Bacon said we should do with even the greatest of human books: “taste,” “chew,” “swallow,” and “digest” it, and read it “wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
The final point about the gospel made by Paul in these two verses of Romans is the one with which Paul actually starts, namely, that it is God’s gospel. It is something God announced and accomplished and what he sent his apostles to proclaim. It is something God blesses and through which he saves men and women. The grammatical way of stating this is that the genitive (“of God”) is a subjective, rather than an objective genitive. It means that God creates and announces the gospel rather than that he is the object of its proclamation.
Note how prominent this point is in these early verses of Romans. God the Father has “promised [the gospel] beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (v. 2). He has sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to accomplish the work thus promised, with the result that the gospel, then as now, is “regarding” him (v. 3). Finally, it is “through him and for his name’s sake” that Paul and the other apostles, exercising a calling received by them from God, were in the process of proclaiming the gospel to men and women everywhere (v. 5).
If God is concerned about his gospel to this extent, will he not bless it fully wherever these great truths are proclaimed?
Let me tell you one story of such a blessing. In the year 1816 a Scotsman by the name of Robert Haldane went to Switzerland. Haldane was a godly layman who, with his brother James Alexander, had been much used of the Lord in Scotland. In Geneva, on this particular occasion, he was sitting on a park bench in a garden in the open air and heard a group of young men talking. As he listened he realized two things. First, these were theological students. Second, they were ignorant of true Christianity. As a result of this encounter and after a few encouraging conversations, Haldane invited the students to his room and began to teach them the Book of Romans, going through it verse by verse, as we will be doing in these studies. God honored this work, and the Holy Spirit blessed it by the conversions of these young men. They were converted one by one, and in turn they were instrumental in a religious revival that not only affected Switzerland but spread to France and the Netherlands.
One of these students was Merle d’Aubigné, who became famous for his classic History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. We know it in an abbreviated form as The Life and Times of Martin Luther. Another of these men was Louis Gaussen, the author of Theopneustia, a book on the inspiration of the Scriptures. The company of those converted through Haldane’s exposition of Romans included: Frédéric Monod, the chief architect and founder of the Free Churches in France; Bonifas, who became a great and distinguished theologian; and César Malan, another important religious leader. All were converted as a result of Haldane’s exposition of the truths of the Romans epistle.
Why should it be any different today? If it were our gospel, we could expect nothing. But it is not our gospel. It is “the gospel of God,” that grand old gospel that was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” and achieved for us by the Lord Jesus Christ through his substitutionary death and resurrection. We should proclaim it fearlessly and with zeal, as did Paul.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
… the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the previous study I tried to show that Christianity, the religion being explained by the apostle Paul in Romans, is a unique religion, and I gave a number of reasons for saying that. In this chapter we come to the chief reason: Christianity is unique because it is founded upon a unique person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet it is more than this. Not only is Christianity unique because its founder is unique, it is unique because it is uniquely linked to him, in the sense that you simply cannot have Christianity without the Lord Jesus Christ! J.N.D. Anderson, director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London, has noted that other religions are quite different:
In Confucianism and Buddhism it is the teaching and principles of Confucius and the Buddha which represent the essence of the religion, rather than the teacher who first enunciated them or the facts of his life and death. Even in Islam, the towering figure of Muhammad finds its paramount importance in the divine revelation which it believes was given to mankind through him. It is the ipsissima verba of the Almighty, communicated to the prophet by the Archangel Gabriel and subsequently recorded in the Qur’ân, together with that further teaching provided by the inspired sunna or practice of the prophet, which constitute the essence of the faith; and a Muslim would point to the Book and the Traditions, rather than to Muhammad himself, as the media of revelation.
By contrast, Christianity is Jesus Christ. John R. W. Stott wrote: “The person and work of Christ are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, the foundation is undermined and the whole superstructure will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the center of Christianity; all else is circumference.”
Who Is Jesus Christ?
Obviously this causes us to ask who Jesus Christ is, and, as soon as we do, we find Paul’s answer in the words “his Son”—Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.
Today, largely as a result of the religious liberalism of the last century, the term “son of God” is understood in a nearly generic sense, usually meaning only “a human being.” Liberal theology holds that we are all sons or daughters of God. But this is a rather new heresy and one that none of the New Testament writers would have understood. When they used the words “Son of God” they were not referring to any supposed divine characteristics of human beings or even of some special relationship that we are all supposed to have to God. They meant deity itself. They meant that he who was being called Son of God was uniquely divine; that is, he was and always had been God.
Take the great confession of the apostle Peter, recorded in Matthew 16. Jesus had asked the disciples who the people were saying he was. They gave answers that had been making the rounds: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets.
“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered for the rest: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). This answer set Jesus apart from the category of those human figures the people were suggesting. It identified him as the divine Messiah. Moreover, Jesus accepted the designation, assuring Peter and the others that this insight had come not as the result of simple human observation but as a special revelation from God the Father. It was God who had given Peter this great discernment.
Jesus explicitly taught who he was: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He had also said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58).
When Thomas fell down to worship Jesus after his resurrection, confessing him “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), Jesus accepted the designation. Then he gently chided Thomas, not for his worship but for his earlier unbelief.
This is the sense in which Paul begins to unfold the content of the Christian message. Already he has called it “the gospel of God,” meaning that God is the source of this great plan of salvation. Now he adds that the gospel concerns “his [God’s] Son.” This means that Jesus is the unique Son of God and that the person and work of this divine Jesus are the gospel’s substance. This is where we start. We do not countenance any modern nonsense about a “Christless Christianity.” We begin with the eternal Son of God, and we confess that everything we believe and are as Christians centers in the person and work of that unique individual.
Jesus is not only unique in his divine nature, however. He is also unique in that he became man at a specific point in human history and now remains the God-man eternally. No one else is like that. No one can ever be.
This brings us to a remarkable section of Paul’s introduction in which every word is so precisely chosen and of such significance that, even apart from Paul’s claims to be writing as an apostle, we ought to think of Romans as more than a “merely human” composition. To begin with, there is an obvious contrast between the two natures of the historical, earthly Jesus. The first is his human nature. In the Greek text the word is sarx, translated “flesh.” But the term is not limited to describing only the fleshly parts of our body, as the word is in English. It means “the whole man.” The translators of the New International Version are therefore right on target when they translate “as to his human nature.” This “nature” is contrasted with Christ’s divine nature, which is described as “the Spirit of holiness.” That phrase does not refer to the Holy Spirit (though many have interpreted it this way), but to Christ’s own spiritual or divine nature, which is holy. In other words, the first important thing about this section is its clear recognition of both the human and divine natures of Jesus.
Note also the contrast between “descendant of David” and “Son of God.” This corresponds to the aforementioned distinction, because “descendant of David” speaks of Jesus’ human nature (it is as a man that he was born into David’s family tree), while “Son of God” is linked to his divinity.
The really interesting point is the contrast between the word was, the verb used in the first part of this descriptive sentence, and declared, which is the verb in part two. However, I need to point out that “was” is a weak rendering of the word Paul actually used. In Greek the word is ginomai, which means “become,” “take place,” “happen” or, in some cases “be born” or even “come into being.” “Was” describes a past state or condition, but it can be a timeless state. “Became” shows that something came into existence that was not in existence previously. And, of course, this is precisely what happened in our Lord’s incarnation. Before his birth to Mary at what we call the beginning of the Christian era, Jesus was God and always had been God. (That is why the other verb is “declared.” He was declared to be God.) But he became man at a particular past point in history by the incarnation.
In verses 3 and 4, a brief message of only twenty-eight Greek words (forty-one in English), Paul has provided us with an entire Christology.
Great David’s Greater Son
There is a debate among those who have studied Romans as to whether the church to which Paul was writing was predominantly Jewish or predominantly Gentile or a mixture of the two. I believe that it was a predominantly Gentile church and that the epistle should be understood in that light. But, as previously mentioned, it is nevertheless also true that Paul saw the gospel as growing out of its Jewish roots and makes that point frequently.
An example occurs in the words “descendant of David” in verse 3. We have noted that this phrase appears in the long sentence describing the two natures of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it goes beyond what we might have thought necessary for the apostle to say. In contrasting Christ’s human nature with his divine nature, it would have been possible for Paul merely to say, “who as to his human nature was a man [or a true man].” That is indeed the chief point of the passage. But instead of this, he says, “was a descendant of David,” thus bringing in the whole matter of Jesus’ Jewish ancestry.
Why does Paul do this? There are several reasons.
- By referring to Jesus as a “descendant of David,” Paul gives substance to his main contention, namely, that Jesus was a true human being. It is not that Jesus was merely a man in some vague, mystical way, but that he became a specific man whose existence was grounded in a particular human ancestry. Although we do not have any pictures of Jesus, if we had lived in his day and had possessed a camera then, we could have taken one. His eyes and hair had a certain color. He weighed so many pounds. Furthermore, we could have talked to him as well as to his mother and father, brothers and sisters and friends. He would have had stories to tell about his human relatives.
- By referring to Jesus as a “descendant of David,” Paul gives a specific example of the things “promised beforehand” by God “in the Holy Scriptures.” There were many things prophesied concerning the Christ—where he would be born, how he would be treated by his people, the nature of his death, the fact of his resurrection. But one of the chief promises was that he would be born of David’s line and would therefore be eligible to sit on David’s throne and reign forever as the true king of Israel. Isaiah said, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]; From his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1).
Jeremiah was even more explicit:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteousness.”
The way in which these prophecies were fulfilled is quite remarkable, because there seemed to be a problem regarding the family from which a claimant to the throne of David might come. The difficulty was that there were two lines of descendency from King David. One was the line of Solomon, who had reigned on David’s throne after the death of his father. Normally, there would be no question but that an elder son of a family descended from King Solomon would reign. But in Jeremiah 22:30, in the chapter just before the one prophesying “a righteous Branch” that would arise in David’s line, a harsh curse is pronounced on a king named Jehoiachin, the last of the actual reigning kings descended from King Solomon: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime: for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.” Because of God’s curse, no king descended in that line could reign legitimately.
There was another strong line of descent, however. King Solomon had an older brother, Nathan, who would have been king if God had not given the throne to Solomon. Nathan had also produced descendants, but any descendant of this line who claimed inheritance of the promises made to King David would have been challenged immediately by descendants in the line that had actually reigned. How could such a dilemma be solved? There was a lack of reigning kings in one line and a curse on the other.
The way God solved the issue was so simple that it confounds the wisest skeptics. The line of Solomon ran on through the centuries until it eventually produced Joseph, who was betrothed to the Virgin Mary and eventually became her husband, though not until after she had conceived and given birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was not descended from Joseph; otherwise he would have inherited the curse on that line. But when Joseph took Mary under his protection and thus became the adoptive father of her divine child, he passed the right of royalty to him. And since Jesus was also descended from Mary—who, as it turns out, was a descendant of David through the line of Nathan—Jesus combined the claims of the two lines in his unique personhood and thereby eliminated the possibility of there ever being any other legitimate claimant to the throne. In other words, if Jesus is not the Messiah who has descended from David according to the Old Testament prophecies, there will never be a Messiah. For Jesus had no human children, and each of his brothers (who are the only other possibilities through whom another Messiah might descend) had the curse on him and would have passed it on to his children.
Paul’s reference to Jesus’ descent from David in Romans 1:3 is quite brief, of course. But these details of his ancestry, as I have given them, would undoubtedly have formed the substance of much longer expositions by Paul in many teaching situations.
- By referring to Jesus as a “descendant of David,” Paul prepares the way for the exalted title he is going to give him at the end of this great sentence, namely, “Lord.” One of the problems the apostle faced in his missionary work among the Gentiles is that in the eyes of many people the Jesus he preached was only a common criminal, properly executed, and therefore hardly to be extolled. But Jesus is actually a descendant of the great King David, says Paul. And what is even more important, he is the king announced in prophecy—the king who was also the Son of God. He is, therefore, not merely the King of the Jews, but the King of all men. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, the very essence of Christianity.
The Sovereign Son
This brings me to the last point of these verses, based on something Paul says about Jesus in the second half of his long descriptive sentence regarding the Lord’s two natures. He says that Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” How are we to understand that? Particularly, how are we to understand the phrase “with power”?
The most common way of understanding these words is to relate “with power” to “his resurrection,” as if Paul was thinking of the resurrection as a striking revelation of God’s power. Using this approach, the words “Spirit of holiness” would be seen as referring to the Holy Spirit, viewed as the agent of the resurrection; and this powerful resurrection, accomplished by the Spirit, would be seen as a proof of Christ’s deity. It is true, of course, that the resurrection was accomplished by God’s power and is itself proof of Christ’s claims. But the Bible does not actually speak of the Holy Spirit’s raising Jesus from the dead. The Father is the One who is said to have done that. Even more significantly, we have already seen that the words “Spirit of holiness” refer to Christ’s divine nature—the words kata pneuma (“according to spirit”) parallel the words kata sarka (“according to flesh”)—and not to the third person of the Trinity. That alone seems to exclude the most popular interpretation of “with power.”
A second understanding links “with power” to the declaration of Christ’s deity. That is, it views Paul as thinking of a powerful or effective declaration, one that accomplishes its ends. Charles Hodge and F. Godet held this interpretation.
It is significant, however, that in the Greek text the words “with power” follow immediately after the words “Son of God” so that the text literally reads: “… declared the Son of God with power according to a spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.” This gives us a third understanding of what is going on in this sentence. In this view the words “with power” are linked to “Son of God,” so that we might more properly understand Paul to be speaking of “the Son of God with power” or “the powerful Son of God,” which he is declared to be by the resurrection. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones takes this view, rightly I think, and explains it like this:
The Lord Jesus Christ … was the Son of God before. He is always the Son of God. He was the Son of God before the incarnation and from all eternity.… Where then is the variation?… It is in the form that he assumes; and what we have been told in verse 3 is that when he came into this world he did not come as the Son of God with power. No! He came as a helpless babe.… He was Son of God—yes; but not Son of God with power. In other words, when he came as a babe, the power of the Son of God was veiled in the flesh.… But what the apostle says is, that in the resurrection he is “declared to be the Son of God with power.” It is there that we realize how powerful he is.
The point of this should be clear to everyone. It is not merely a case of Paul’s declaring that the resurrection was a demonstration of the great power of God or even that the resurrection was a powerful demonstration of the validity of Christ’s claims. It is not that at all. Rather, it is actually a strong declaration about the Lord’s own person—precisely the purpose of this entire section and the point on which Paul will end. It is a declaration that Jesus is the sovereign Son of God and therefore rightly the “Lord” of all men as well as the Savior.
The conclusion of this, which in this study comes at the end instead of being scattered through the chapter, is that Jesus Christ, the very essence of Christianity, is your Lord and that you ought rightly to turn from all sin and worship him. You may dispute his claims. But if they are true, if Jesus is who the apostle Paul declares him to be in this epistle and others, there is no other reasonable or right option open to you than total and heart-deep allegiance. Colonel Robert Ingersoll, the famous agnostic of the last century, was no friend of Christianity. But he saw certain things clearly; and he said on one occasion, though in a critical vein, “Christianity cannot live in peace with any other form of faith. If that religion be true, there is but one Savior, one inspired book and but one little narrow … path that leads to heaven. Such a religion is necessarily uncompromising.”
That statement is true because the Lord Jesus Christ is himself uncompromising. He is uncompromising because of who he is. Is he the eternal Son of God now made man for your salvation? Is he the Lord? If he is, you ought to heed his call—the call of the gospel—and follow him.
Jesus Christ Our Lord
… Jesus Christ our Lord.
One of the excellencies of the New International Version is the way it handles the word order of the opening verses of Romans, reserving the words “Jesus Christ our Lord” until the end of verse 4, where they appear as a natural and effective climax. This is an improvement over the King James Version, which does not follow the Greek at this point and inserts the words earlier.
I emphasize this because the words “Jesus is Lord” constituted the earliest Christian creed and were therefore of the greatest possible importance to the early church. From the earliest days it was recognized that if a person confessed “Jesus is Lord,” he or she was to be received for baptism. This is because, on the one hand, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3) and because, on the other hand, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). To us, reading these records at a later date, it may seem strange that “Jesus is Lord” (Kyrios ’Iēsous, Greek) could be so important to our spiritual predecessors, but the reason is that they simply overflow with meaning.
To say that Jesus is Lord implies two things. First, it implies that Jesus is God. Second, it implies that Jesus is the Savior.
The first of these implications is due to the fact that in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), which was well known to the Jewish community of the first century and from which most of the New Testament writers quoted when citing Scripture, kyrios (“Lord”) is used to translate the Hebrew name for God: Yahweh, or Jehovah. This is why most of our English Bibles do not use the name Yahweh but have Lord instead. The disciples of Christ knew that this word was repeatedly used to translate this great name for God. Yet, knowing this, they did not hesitate to transfer the title to Jesus, thereby indicating that in their view Jesus is Jehovah.
We need to be careful at this point, of course, because not all uses of “Lord” in the New Testament imply divinity. “Lord” was a bit like our English word sir. On the lowest level it could be used merely as a form of polite address. That is why, according to the Gospels, apparent unbelievers frequently called Jesus “Lord.” This does not mean that they had received a sudden revelation of who he was but only that they were treating him with the respect due a distinguished rabbi; they were being polite. On the other hand, “Lord” could mean more. When we speak of Sir Winston Churchill we are using “sir” as a title. Similarly, those who called Jesus “Lord” were sometimes confessing that he was their “Master” by this greeting. In the most exalted instances, as in Thomas’s stirring post-resurrection confession, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), the word was linked to the early disciples’ belief in Christ’s divinity.
This is the meaning of kyrios in the Christological passages of the New Testament. Here are some examples.
- 1 Corinthians 8:4–6. “… We know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” The background for this passage is the polytheism of the Greek world, which Paul is refuting here. He is arguing that there is but one God, who is one with Jesus. The parallelism between “from whom all things came and for whom we live” (applied to God the Father) and “through whom all things came and through whom we live” (applied to Jesus Christ) makes this identification plain.
- Luke 2:11. A second example is from the Christmas story. In this verse the angel tells the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The important thing here is that “Lord” is in the nominative case, as is “Christ,” rather than being in the genitive case. If the word had been a genitive, the announcement would have concerned “the Lord’s Christ,” which would have been perfectly correct but would have meant no more than that Jesus was a specially chosen man, like one of the Old Testament kings, priests, or prophets. Because the word is in the nominative case, the statement actually goes beyond this to mean “Christ [who is] the Lord.”
- Psalm 110:1. On one occasion, recorded in Matthew 22:41–46, Jesus asked his enemies who they thought the Christ was to be. They replied, “The son of David.” This was true as far as it went; but they were thinking of an earthly, human Messiah, and Jesus wanted them to see farther. So he referred them to this Old Testament text, asking, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (vv. 43–45). Jesus’ point was that if David called the Messiah “Lord,” it could only be because the Messiah was to be more than just one of his descendants. He would have to be a divine Messiah, which is what the title “Lord” indicates.
Peter had this text in mind when he told the Sanhedrin, “God exalted him [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior …” (Acts 5:31).
Paul was also thinking of this when he wrote, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).
The author of Hebrews used the text early in his letter (and also at two later points): “After he [the Son] had provided purification for [our] sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 1:3; cf. 8:1; 12:2).
- Philippians 2:5–11. The great Christological hymn of Philippians 2 is the clearest textual statement that “Jesus is Lord,” that is, one with God.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
What is the “name that is above every name”? It is not the name “Jesus” itself, though the wording seems to suggest this to the English reader. It is the name “Lord”; for that is God’s own name, and no name can be higher than that.
The meaning of this title shows why the early Christians would not apply the name “Lord” to any other. If they had done so, they would have been repudiating Christ. One famous case is that of the aged Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, who was martyred on February 22, a.d. 156. As he was driven to the arena, two of the city officials, who had respect for him because of his age and reputation, tried to persuade him to comply with the demand to honor Caesar. “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and burning incense … and saving yourself?” they asked. Polycarp refused. Later, in the arena, he explained his position, saying, “For eighty-six years I have been [Christ’s] slave, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” Polycarp refused to call Caesar “Lord,” because “Lord” meant “God” and there can only be one God. If Polycarp had called Caesar “Lord,” then Jesus could not have been “Lord” for Polycarp, and Polycarp could not have been a Christian.
Those who recorded Polycarp’s story shared his convictions, for they concluded by saying: “He [Polycarp] was arrested by Herod, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, and Statius Quadratus was governor, but our Lord Jesus Christ was reigning forever. To him be glory, honor, majesty and eternal dominion from generation to generation. Amen.”
Lord and Savior
The second implication of the title “Lord” is that Jesus is the Savior. This is linked to his lordship because, as John R. W. Stott writes:
The title “Lord” is a symbol of Christ’s victory over the forces of evil. If Jesus has been exalted over all the principalities and powers of evil, as indeed he has, this is the reason why he has been called Lord. If Jesus has been proclaimed Lord, as he has, it is because these powers are under his feet. He has conquered them on the cross, and therefore our salvation—that is to say, our rescue from sin, Satan, fear and death—is due to that victory.
In recent years it has become customary in some parts of the evangelical world to distinguish between the lordship and the saviorhood of Christ in such a way that one is supposed to be able to have Jesus as Savior without having him as Lord. This is the view, for example, of Charles C. Ryrie, former Dean of Doctoral Studies and Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Reacting to statements by Arthur W. Pink, J. I. Packer and John R. W. Stott in a variety of publications, Ryrie argues that any attempt to link “Jesus as Lord” to “Jesus as Savior” is the equivalent of adding “commitment” to “faith” in salvation. And since “the message of faith only and the message of faith plus commitment of life cannot both be the gospel … one of them is a false gospel and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:6–9).”
There are two serious mistakes at this point. One involves the meaning of faith, which Ryrie seems to detach from commitment. Is “faith” minus “commitment” a true biblical faith? Hardly! Biblical faith involves three elements: (1) knowledge, upon which it is based; (2) heart response, which results from the new birth; and (3) commitment, without which “faith” is no different from the assent of the demons, who only “believe that and shudder” (James 2:19). Faith without commitment is no true faith. It is a dead faith that will save no one.
The second mistake is even more serious, because it involves the person and work of Jesus himself. Who is this one who has saved us from our sins? He is, as Paul has it, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” No true Christian will add anything to the finished work of Jesus. To do so is really to proclaim a false gospel. We direct people to the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he is the Lord Jesus Christ. This Lord is the object of faith and its content. There is no other. Consequently, if faith is directed to one who is not Lord, it is directed to one who is a false Christ of the imagination. Such a one is not the Savior, and he will save no one.
Is He Our Lord?
At this point it is easy for some of us to sit back and congratulate ourselves on having a sound theology. Of course, we know that Jesus must be Lord to be Savior. Of course, we know that true faith involves commitment. But is Jesus really our Lord? Are we truly committed to him? In the study of Christ’s lordship by John Stott, from which I quoted earlier, six implications are suggested:
- An intellectual implication. If Jesus is our Lord, one thing he must be Lord of is our thinking. He must be Lord of our minds. On one occasion, when the Lord called disciples, he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me …” (Matt. 11:29), meaning that he was to be the disciples’ teacher. He is to be our teacher today.
How does Jesus do this, seeing that he is not with us physically as he was in the time of the disciples? The answer is that he teaches us through Scripture. That is why we must be men and women of the Book—if we truly are Christ’s followers. Left to ourselves, we will stray into many kinds of false thinking just as the world does. But if we regularly read and study the Bible, asking the Holy Spirit to interpret it for us, and then try to live out what we understand, we will increasingly come to think as Christ thinks and discover that we have an entirely new outlook on the world. We will see people from God’s perspective, and we will not be taken in by the world’s false ideas.
- An ethical implication. In the study I referred to earlier, Stott points out that Jesus is not just Lord of our minds. He is Lord of our wills and of our moral standards also.
It is not only what we believe that is to come under the lordship of Jesus but also how we behave. Discipleship implies obedience, and obedience implies that there are absolute moral commands that we are required to obey. To refer to Jesus politely as “our Lord” is not enough. He still says to us, “Why do you call me Lord and do not the things that I say?” In today’s miasma of relativity we need to maintain unashamedly the absolute moral standards of the Lord. Further, we need to go on and teach that the yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light, and that under the yoke of Jesus we have not bondage but freedom and rest.
- A vocational implication. If Jesus is Lord, then he is not only Lord of our minds, wills, and morals, but he is also Lord of our time; this means that he is Lord of our professions, jobs, careers, and ambitions. We cannot plan our lives as if our relationship to Jesus is somehow detached from those plans and irrelevant to them.
Paul is an example at this point. Before he met Christ on the road to Damascus and bowed before him, Paul was pursuing a vocation of his own choice. He was a Pharisee and intent on rising high in the intellectual and ruling structures of Judaism. He knew where he was going. When he met Jesus all this was redirected. The first words Jesus uttered after he had stopped Paul cold by asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) and by identifying himself as Jesus, were: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6). Paul obeyed Jesus and was indeed told what he was to do. He was to be Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles. Later, when Paul gave a defense of his activities before King Agrippa, he quoted the Lord as saying to him, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God …” (Acts 26:16–18). Paul concluded, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven” (v. 19).
This is precisely the way we must regard our vocations. We may not be called to be apostles, as Paul was. Only a few are called to what we term “religious work.” But whether we work in a church or a factory, in a hospital, a law firm, or our own small business, whether we are homemakers or builders of homes—whatever our calling, we must regard it as a form of Christian service and know that we are obeying our Lord Jesus Christ as we pursue it.
- An ecclesiastical implication. Jesus is also head of the church. This truth can deliver us from two banes. One is disorder. It occurs when those who are members of the church pursue their own course—including what they wish their church to be—without regard to the guidelines for church life laid down in the Bible or without proper consideration for those who are their brothers and sisters in the Lord. The second is clericalism. It occurs when laypeople abandon their God-given roles in the church or when pastors tyrannize the church without acknowledging that they are servants of the people as well as servants of Christ and that they must serve the church as Jesus served it.
- A political implication. Today, when we talk about the lordship of Christ, we face a battle on two fronts. One is an intra-mural contest, which goes on within the Christian fellowship. It is the battle I was speaking about earlier when I repudiated certain attempts to separate the saving work of Christ from his lordship.
But there is another battle also, and it is extra-mural. That is, it is outside the church’s fellowship. It comes from those who, in a certain sense, may be quite tolerant of religion, but who insist that religion must be kept in its place—“on the reservation”—and that, above all, it must not intrude into our national life. We are fighting this battle every day. And we are saying—I hope we are saying—that Jesus is not only our own personal Lord and not only Lord of the church that he founded; he is also Lord of all life, the life of nations included. He is not merely our King; he is the King of kings. He is not merely our Lord; he is the Lord of lords. Therefore, we who are Christians stand as his representatives in history to call this world to account. We are here to remind the world that this same Jesus Christ whom we serve has spoken from heaven to reveal what true righteousness is, both for individuals and nations, and that those who disregard him do so at their own peril and must one day give an account.
Yet this must be done correctly. First, it must be done humbly. For none of us is perfect—we, too, must appear before Jesus—and those we speak to are ultimately answerable to him and not to us. Second, we must know that our mission is to be by example and word and not by force. Otherwise we will become triumphalists. We must remember that the Lord did not come to set up an army or even a political organization, but rather a witnessing fellowship. Whenever the church has departed from the Lord’s pattern in this area, it has always done so to its harm.
- A global implication. If Jesus is our Lord, the final implication flows from the Great Commission by which, on the basis of his own authority, the Lord sent disciples into the entire world to make and disciple Christians everywhere (Matt. 28:18–20). The lordship of Jesus is the most powerful of missionary incentives. It is as Lord of our lives that he tells us to go; because we know him as Lord, this is exactly what we do. Because we love him, we want everyone to become his disciples.
I close with the questions I asked at the beginning of this list. Is Jesus your Lord? Are you truly committed to him? If you are, your life can never be what it would be otherwise. If he is your Lord, no other can ever take his place.
The Obedience of Faith
Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.
It is a puzzle to me that whenever I write about the lordship of Jesus Christ, as I did in the previous chapter, stressing that one must follow Jesus and submit to him to be a Christian, some people always object that an emphasis like this destroys the gospel. If Jesus must be Lord, then salvation cannot be by “simple” faith, they argue. If we insist that one must follow Christ, we must be mingling works with faith as a means of salvation, which is “another gospel.”
No matter that I show what true biblical faith is! No matter that I explain how obedience and faith both necessarily follow from regeneration!
I suppose that Paul had this problem, too, if for no other reason than that the human mind seems to work much the same way in all people. I believe Paul had these difficulties because of the way he develops his thoughts in the opening verses of Romans. In the Greek text the first seven verses of the book are one long sentence, not an unusual form for one writing in good Greek style. Nevertheless, there has been a natural and significant climax at the end of verse 4 in the words “Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is the point to which the earlier verses have been leading, and it would have been quite proper, as well as good Greek, if Paul had ended his sentence there. Why does he not do this? Why does he add the thoughts in verse 5 before the wrap-up to the introduction in verses 6 and 7? The answer is along the lines I am describing. The apostle has spoken of Jesus Christ as “Lord.” Now, knowing how people think when confronted with that idea, he feels the need to amplify his statement.
Must Jesus be Lord if one is to be saved by him? If he must, this will have an effect on the way we understand the gospel and obey Christ’s command to evangelize the world.
Disobedience and Obedience
The key words of verse 5 are those the New International Version translates as “to the obedience that comes from faith” (literally, “unto obedience of faith”). There are two ways this phrase can be interpreted. First, it can be interpreted as referring to the obedience which faith produces or in which it results. I think this is not the true meaning. But it is worth noting that, even if this is the correct interpretation, the point I have been making is still plain, since Paul would be saying that true biblical faith must produce obedience. If the “faith” one has does not lead to obedience, it is not the faith the Bible is talking about when it calls us to faith in Jesus Christ. It may be intellectual assent of a very high order. But it is not a living faith. It does not join us to Jesus Christ, and it will save no one.
Yet the case is even stronger than this, because a proper interpretation of the phrase is not “unto the obedience to which faith leads” (the first interpretation) but rather “unto obedience, the very nature of which is faith” (the second interpretation). Or, to turn it around, we could say, “faith, which is obedience.”
This is such an important point that I want to establish it a bit more fully before going on to show why it is important. The way I want to do this is to show that it is the view of the most important commentators. Let me cite a few, starting with the most recent and moving backwards.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “The Apostle says … ‘the obedience of faith’ in order to bring out this point—that he is talking about an obedience which consists in faith, or, if you like, an obedience of which faith is the central principle.”
- John Murray: “It is … intelligible and suitable to take ‘faith’ as in apposition to ‘obedience’ and understand it as the obedience which consists in faith. Faith is regarded as an act of obedience, or commitment to the gospel of Christ.”
- Charles Hodge: “The obedience of faith is that obedience which consists in faith, or of which faith is the controlling principle.”
- Robert Haldane: “The gospel reforms those who believe it; but it would be presenting an imperfect view of the subject to say that it was given to reform the world. It was given that men might believe and be saved. The obedience, then, here referred to, signifies submission to the doctrine of the gospel.”
- F. Godet: “The only possible meaning is: the obedience which consists of faith itself.”
- Martin Luther (contrasting Paul’s demand with human arguments): “Paul here speaks of ‘obedience to the faith’ and not of obedience to such wisdom as first must be proved by arguments of reason and experience. It is not at all his intention to prove what he says, but he demands of his readers implicit trust in him as one having divine authority.”
- John Calvin: “By stating the purpose of his call Paul again reminds the Romans of his office, as though he were saying, ‘It is my duty to discharge the responsibility entrusted to me, which is to preach the word. It is your responsibility to hear the word and wholly obey it, unless you want to make void the calling which the Lord has bestowed on me.’ We deduce from this that those who irreverently and contemptuously reject the preaching of the gospel, the design of which is to bring us into obedience to God, are stubbornly resisting the power of God and perverting the whole of his order.”
I have taken several pages to make this point because, as I said at the beginning, it is an extremely important matter. It is important because it affects how we understand the gospel and how we seek to obey Christ’s command to evangelize. How is it that most of today’s evangelism is conducted? It is true, is it not, that for the most part the gospel is offered to people as something that (in our opinion) is good for them and will make them happy but that they are at perfect liberty to refuse! “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman,” we are sometimes told. “He would never coerce anybody.” With a framework like this, sin becomes little more than bad choices and faith only means beginning to see the issues clearly.
What is missing in this contemporary approach is the recognition that sin primarily is disobedience and that God commands us to repent and repudiate it. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Sin is not just that which I do that is wrong and which makes me feel miserable afterwards … not just that which spoils my life and makes me feel miserable and unhappy … not just that thing which gets me down and which I would like to overcome.” It is that, but it is also much more. Primarily, sin is rebellion against God. “Sin is refusal to listen to the voice of God. Sin is a turning of your back upon God and doing what you think.” So, when the gospel is preached, it must be preached not merely as an invitation to experience life to the full or even to accept God’s invitation. It must be preached as a command. (This is why Paul is so concerned to stress his role as an apostle, as one called and commissioned to be God’s ambassador.) We are commanded to turn from our sinful disobedience to God and instead obey him by believing in and following the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior.
This is the way Paul himself preached the gospel, though we frequently overlook it because of our own weak methods. Do you remember how Paul concluded his great sermon to the Athenians? “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed …” (Acts 17:30–31, italics mine). In God’s name, Paul commanded the Greeks to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus.
It is the same in Romans. In Romans 6:17 Paul summarizes the response of the Roman Christians to the gospel by saying, “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (italics mine, here and in the subsequent citations). In Romans 10 he argues that the Jews “did not submit to God’s righteousness” (v. 3); in verse 16 he says, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel …” (kjv). At the end of the letter the idea appears again in a great benediction: “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom. 16:25–27).
In my opinion, the weakness of much of our contemporary Christianity can be traced to a deficiency at precisely this point. By failing to present the gospel as a command to be obeyed we minimize sin, trivialize discipleship, rob God of his glory, and delude some into thinking that all is well with their souls when actually they are without Christ and are perishing.
Pelagius and Jonathan Edwards
But there may be an objection at this point. It comes from those who know theology and are aware that, according to Paul’s later teaching in Romans, everyone is so deeply ensnared by sin that even though the gospel may be preached to us, apart from the grace of God we are not able to repent and obey God’s commands. This was the point that bothered Pelagius and led to his deviant theology and the resulting clash with Saint Augustine. Pelagius felt that if we are commanded to do something, we must be able to do it. “Ought” implies “can.” But instead of throwing out the command (which is what most people seem to want to do today), Pelagius threw out the inability, arguing that we can turn from sin, believe on Christ, and pursue obedience in our own strength, entirely unaided by the Holy Spirit.
The problem here is that Pelagius was overlooking the nature of our inability, which he would have understood better had he paid more attention to the command for obedience. The inability of man in his fallen state is not a physical inability, as if God were demanding that a paralyzed person get up and walk to him. A person so impaired really would have an excuse for failing to do that, but that is not the right analogy. The inability we have is not a physical inability but a moral one. That is, we do not obey God, not because we cannot obey him physically, but because we will not obey God. It is this that makes the command to obey so important and our disobedience so reprehensible.
Let me give you one illustration. Jonathan Edwards, who is probably the greatest theologian America has produced, wrote his most impressive treatise on the “Freedom of the Will,” and at one point toward the end of the treatise he had this answer for those who think the biblical doctrines unreasonable:
Let common sense determine whether there be not a great difference between these two cases: the one, that of a man who has offended his prince, and is cast into prison; and after he has lain there a while, the king comes to him, calls him to come forth; and tells him, that if he will do so, and will fall down before him and humbly beg his pardon, he shall be forgiven, and set at liberty, and also be greatly enriched, and advanced to honor: the prisoner heartily repents of the folly and wickedness of his offense against his prince, is thoroughly disposed to abase himself, and accept the king’s offer; but is confined by strong walls, with gates of brass, and bars of iron. The other case is, that of a man who is of a very unreasonable spirit, of a haughty, ungrateful, willful disposition; and moreover, has been brought up in traitorous principles; and has his heart possessed with an extreme and inveterate enmity to his lawful sovereign; and for his rebellion is cast into prison, and lies long there, loaded with heavy chains, and in miserable circumstances. At length the compassionate prince comes to the prison, orders his chains to be knocked off, and his prison doors to be set wide open; calls to him and tells him, if he will come forth to him, and fall down before him, acknowledge that he has treated him unworthily, and ask his forgiveness; he shall be forgiven, set at liberty, and set in a place of great dignity and profit in his court. But he is so stout, and full of haughty malignity, that he cannot be willing to accept the offer; his rooted strong pride and malice have perfect power over him, and as it were bind him, by binding his heart: the opposition of his heart has the mastery over him, having an influence on his mind far superior to the king’s grace and condescension, and to all his kind offers and promises. Now, is it agreeable to common sense, to assert and stand to it, that there is no difference between these two cases, as to any worthiness of blame in the prisoners?
When we first come upon an illustration like that, our reaction is to say that it is not an accurate description of our case, that we are not like the stubborn prisoner. But that is precisely what the Bible teaches we are like. Consequently, it is important for the gospel to be presented to the unsaved as a command and to have it stressed that God will hold us accountable if we persist in sin and refuse to bow before our rightful Lord.
Apostle of God’s Grace
Yet, as I draw toward the end of this chapter, I must add that although the demand that we repent of sin and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ is a command, it is nevertheless a command that comes to us in the context of the gospel. And, remember, the gospel is not bad news; it is good news. Above all, it is the good news of God’s grace.
I suppose that is why the word grace appears in verse 5—for the first time in the letter. It will occur again; it occurs just two verses later, in verse 7. In fact, it will be found a total of twenty-two times in the course of the epistle. “Grace” is one of the great words of Romans and a wonderful concept. In my opinion, the word occurs here because even though Paul is stressing the Lordship of Christ and the necessity of obeying God in response to the demands of the gospel, at the same time he is also keenly aware that those who respond to the gospel do so only because God is already graciously at work in them and because the gospel is itself the means by which the unmerited favor of God toward us is made operative.
What is this “grace”? Grace is often defined as God’s favor toward the undeserving, but it is more than that. If we have understood Jonathan Edwards’s illustration of the stubborn, rebellious prisoner, we know that it is actually God’s favor toward those who deserve the precise opposite. What we deserve is hell. We do not even deserve a chance to hear the gospel, let alone experience the regenerating work of God within, by which we are enabled to turn from sin and obey Jesus. We deserve God’s wrath. We deserve his fierce condemnation. But instead of wrath, we find grace. Instead of condemnation, we find the One who in our place bore God’s judgment and now lives to rule over us.
I do not know what went through the mind of Paul as he wrote these words. I know only what I read in the text. But I suspect that Paul was thinking of his own experience of God’s grace as he mentions the matter of his apostleship again in verse 5, saying that it was through Christ that he “received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles.”
There is a passage in 1 Corinthians that gives a clue to what is going on. Paul had been writing of Christ’s resurrection appearances and had added that after appearing to James and all the other apostles, Jesus had appeared to him as to one “abnormally born.” Then he added, in words that were not demanded by the context but which undoubtedly flowed from Paul’s acute sense of God’s rich grace toward him, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect …” (1 Cor. 15:9–10).
Like all who have been truly converted, Paul could never forget what he had been apart from God’s grace.
He had been self-righteous.
He had been cruel.
He had been fighting against the goads of God in his conscience.
He had been trying to destroy God’s work by his persecution of the infant church.
But God had stopped him and had brought him to a right mind. Up to that point he had been disobeying God. But when Jesus revealed himself to him on the road to Damascus, the rebellious will of the future apostle to the Gentiles was broken and Paul became Jesus’ obedient servant and disciple. How could that be? How could one so rebellious be brought to his knees before Jesus? There is only one answer. It was the grace of God. Only the grace of God can produce such changes. Only a gracious God would want to.
Why is it that we so easily fall into either of two wrong emphases when we present the gospel? Either we present the gospel as something so easy and simplistic that it fails to deal with sin and does not really produce conversions. Or else we present a harsh gospel, forgetting that it is only the love of God and not the condemnation of the law that wins anybody.
And there is one more point to be made. It is only the gracious love of God that motivates us to be his ambassadors. We are not apostles, as Paul was, but we have a corresponding function. We are God’s witnesses in this world, and, like Paul, we are to take the gospel to the nations. What will motivate us to do that and will actually keep us at it when the going gets hard? There is only one thing: remembrance of the grace of God, which we have first received. Paul said this in 2 Corinthians: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.… All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:14–15, 18).
Those Roman Christians
And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you have at some time picked up a letter, begun to read it, been confused by what was being said, and then flipped to the end—perhaps through several pages of nearly undecipherable handwriting—looking for the signature while you asked yourself, “Who in the world is writing this?” I have done that many times, and I have thought that it would be a lot easier if we began our letters like most ancient writers did.
Writers of old started their letters with three elements: (1) the name of the writer, (2) the name of those to whom he or she was writing, and (3) a greeting. A typical ancient letter might begin like this one from the commander of the Roman garrison at Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 23: “Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings” (v. 26). “Claudius Lysias,” the first element in the introduction, is the name of the garrison commander. The second element is “His Excellency, Governor Felix,” the name of the person to whom he is writing. Finally, there is the salutation, which in this case is merely “Greetings.” The whole is a bit like the start of one of today’s inner-office memos. After these formal elements, the commander gets down to the body of the letter, which explains why he is writing it.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is styled like this, yet Paul is so filled with his basic theme—the gospel of God centered in Jesus Christ—that he inevitably adds a lot more to the introduction. He begins simply enough: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.…” But as he begins to explain a bit further just who he is (“called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”), the word gospel sets him off explaining what that gospel of God is about. It is a gospel “promised beforehand … in the Holy Scriptures,” concerning God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” If we did not know him better, we might think that Paul is already well into his letter at this point. But Paul now brings the description of the gospel back to himself and his apostleship, the point with which he began: “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” Then, having returned to his starting point, he proceeds to the next two elements of the classical introduction: “And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This introduction is like a sine wave in mathematics. It begins low, swells to a great peak, and then falls back to an emotional low point again: Paul’s reference to the Roman Christians and his greeting to them.
Where Did They Come From?
Yet this wrap-up is not uninteresting. In the first place, it is noteworthy because of the church at Rome itself. Even at this early date—Paul is writing about a.d. 58 or 59, less than thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the faith of this church was being spoken of “all over the world” (Rom. 1:8). Later, as we know, the church at Rome became increasingly strong, influential, and powerful—eventually corrupt. Even today the church of Rome is a powerful force in Christendom.
Where did this church come from? How did it get started? One thing we can say is that Paul himself did not found it. God had called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Rome was a Gentile city. Yet, as he himself says in verse 13, although Paul had wanted to come to Rome many times, he was prevented from doing so, presumably by pressing missionary concerns. Paul got to Rome later, and Luke tells us about it in Acts. But this was many years after the church in Rome had been founded.
Catholic tradition holds that the Roman church was founded by the apostle Peter and that he was the first pope. I do not think it is necessary to argue, as some Protestants have, that Peter was never in Rome. On the contrary, I think an early church document, “The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians,” implies, though it does not prove, that he was there. But that is not the same thing as saying that Peter founded the Roman church, and the evidence on that point is quite the other way. We know from the long list of names in the last chapter of Romans that Paul knew a great deal about the Roman church, even though he had not been there, yet nowhere in that chapter or elsewhere does he mention Peter, which is nearly inconceivable if Peter was in Rome or if he had founded the Roman church. Indeed, Paul says that it had always been his ambition “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20). It is hard to see how Paul could have written this in a doctrinal letter to the Roman church if it had already been founded by Peter and received its early teaching from him.
So how did the church become established? The truth is, we do not know. But there is a suggestion in the second chapter of Acts of what may have happened. That chapter tells about Pentecost, and it gives a list of the many nations that were represented in Jerusalem that day, including “visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism)” (vv. 10–11). Since the text specifically speaks of “visitors from Rome,” we are probably right in supposing that most of these visitors returned to their capital city after the Jewish feast days and established the first churches in Italy there. If this is the case, the Roman church existed from the very earliest days of the Christian mission.
Moreover, this is a pattern that would have continued. There was a great deal of travel in the ancient world, much more than we might suppose. Rome was the center of these comings and goings. Undoubtedly, people who had been brought to Christ as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission went to and from Rome, and many undoubtedly settled there. This would explain how Paul came to know as many of the Roman Christians as the last chapter shows he did, and it would explain why Paul was not hesitant to write to this church to seek its prayer support for his trip to Jerusalem as well as its financial backing for his projected missionary excursion to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 30–31).
It would also explain why, although the church was undoubtedly composed of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul writes to these believers largely as Gentiles. We see this as early as verse 6, where the phrase “and you also” most naturally picks up from the description of Paul’s commission in verse 5: “to call people from among all the Gentiles.”
So the first interesting information is that a body of genuine followers of Jesus Christ, whether large or small (we do not know), existed in the capital city of the Roman empire—of all places! We usually think of Rome as the imperial city of the Caesars, glorious in its palaces, marble monuments, and treasures. It was that. But it was also a terrible city, full of horrible sins and gross licentiousness. Vice was everywhere. Yet in this city of gross sin there was a fellowship of people who rejected Rome’s sin and instead lived an entirely different kind of life. It was a life marked by holiness, a mutual sharing of burdens, love, and compassion for those who were abused or downtrodden. It was nothing less than a new humanity planted by God atop the deteriorating carcass of the old.
That is what Christianity always is. It is not an outgrowth, not even a quantum leap upward from the world’s decaying civilization. It is something utterly new. It is what you are, if you are a Christian—“a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). It is what your church is, if it is composed of true believers.
How Did They Become Different?
Another interesting thing about the second and third parts of the letter’s introduction is what they tell us about the spiritual origins of these people. Here is a group of people who were in the midst of a corrupt pagan society, yet were entirely different from the mainstream. How did they get to be different? How did they become Christians? In these verses Paul tells us four important things about the early church at Rome.
- The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were called to belong to Jesus Christ. This is a general description of Christians, which is different from the similar phrase “called to be saints” that occurs in the next verse. What does it mean? Some people have read verse 6 as if it were describing Christians as people “called by Jesus Christ,” because the Greek can be translated that way. But here the New International Version is undoubtedly correct when it inserts the words “to belong to.” The sense is not that Jesus has called Christians—that is a work usually attributed to God the Father—but rather that, as a result of God’s calling, Christians are attached to Jesus and have their true life in that relationship. Before, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1–3, they were “dead in [their] transgressions and sins” and were “by nature objects of wrath.” Now, as a result of God’s calling, they have been “made alive with Christ” and given “good works” to do (vv. 4, 9).
This is the essential definition of a Christian (a “Christ one”). A Christian is one who belongs to Jesus Christ. This is what makes him or her different and why such a one inevitably seeks the company of others who also belong to Jesus. Nothing is more important than this in a believer’s life.
Does this describe you? Do you belong to Jesus Christ? If you do, you will live like it. If you do not, you are no true Christian, regardless of your outward profession.
- The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were loved by God the Father. This is no bland statement, as if Paul were only declaring that it is God’s nature to love and that these citizens of Rome, like all persons, were therefore loved by him. That is not the way the Bible speaks of God’s love. This love is an electing, saving love. So the statement “loved by God” actually describes how those who are Christians come to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ in the first place.
How indeed? Some think that people become believers by their own unaided choice, as if all we have to do is decide to trust Jesus. But how could we possibly do that if, as we have seen Paul say, each of us is “dead in … transgressions and sins”? How can a dead man decide anything? Some have supposed that we become Christians because God in his omniscience sees some small bit of good in us, even if that “good” is only a tiny seed of faith. But how could God see good in us if, as Paul will later remind us: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12; cf. Ps. 14:3)? Why, then, does God love us? The answer is “because he loves us.” There is just nothing to be said beyond that.
Do you remember how God put it in reference to Israel in the days of Moses? “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you …” (Deut. 7:7–8). The only explanation of why the Lord loved them was that he loved them. It is love and love only.
This is a tremendous thing, if we are Christians. It is something so great we can hardly begin to take it in. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:
We are Christians for one reason only and that is that God has set his love upon us. That is the thing that brings us out of the world and out of the dominion of Satan.… And therefore it is not surprising that the apostle here should remind these Christians of this wonderful thing. The world hated them; it persecuted them. They might be arrested at any moment, at the whim of any cruel tyrant who happened to be the emperor, and they might be condemned to death and thrown to the lions in the arena. They were oftentimes hated of all men, so Paul is anxious that they should realize this, that they are the beloved of God; that they are in Christ and that God loves them in the same way as he loves Christ.… Do not rush on to chapters six, seven and eight, saying, ‘I want to know about the doctrine of sanctification.’ My dear friend, if you only realized, as you should, that you are loved by God as he loved his own Son, you would learn the most important thing with respect to your sanctification without going any further.
The most important thing is that God has loved us. Therefore, we should love and serve him.
- The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were called to be believers by God. Here is the same idea that occurs earlier in the phrase “called to belong to Jesus Christ”; but although the meaning of the verb is the same, the emphasis here is different. In the earlier phrase the emphasis was on what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is one who belongs to Jesus Christ; this is his identity. Here the emphasis is on the call itself, and it is a follow-up to the truth that Christians have been loved by God. First, loved. Then, called. The calling is what theologians term “effectual calling.”
There are two kinds of calling in any presentation of the gospel. The first is a general calling, which means that all who hear are called to turn from their sin to Jesus Christ. This calling corresponds to the demand for obedience that I was talking about in the previous chapter. Not all who hear will respond to this call. Not all will obey. Nevertheless, when we call in Christ’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.… Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matt. 11:28–29a), it is a genuine calling. From God’s side no barrier is erected. Nothing stands in the way. At the same time, as we also saw, human beings do not obey God if left to themselves. No one responds to God’s offer. None want to. So, that some might be saved, God adds to the general call (conveyed to the lost by his servants), a specific call by which God’s chosen ones inwardly hear and respond, becoming Christians. The situation is similar to Jesus’ call to dead Lazarus. Left to ourselves, we are all spiritual corpses. We cannot do anything. But when God calls savingly, some of these spiritual corpses come to spiritual life and do God’s bidding. Anyone who has been saved by God has heard this call in some way and has responded to it.
It may have been—it often is—through preaching. The Word is declared, and somewhere in the church, sitting in a pew with only God looking on, the person involved hears God himself speak. He or she says, “That preacher is describing me. That is my need. It is what I must do.” And the person believes! For another it is the quiet witness of a friend who says, “Don’t you want to become a Christian? Why don’t we pray, and why don’t you receive Jesus?” It can be through the quiet reading of the Bible. It can be through a Christian movie, book, or tract. What is common to all these experiences is that God has called and the person has heard him and believed on Jesus Christ.
My good friend R. C. Sproul tells of his conversion during his first year in college. He and a college buddy were exposed to the gospel one night and both “accepted” Jesus. For R.C., life was never the same. He was and remains an entirely different person. But his friend came down from his room the next morning and said, “Wasn’t that crazy, what we did last night? I guess I just got carried away. You won’t tell anybody about it, will you?” The friend had heard only the call of the preacher. But God had called R.C., and this call, being from God himself, had produced a new man through the new birth or regeneration.
- The Christians at Rome, like all Christians, are called saints. Here “saint” does not mean what it has come to mean in large sectors of the Christian church: one who has attained a certain level of holiness and is therefore worthy of some special veneration or even hearing human prayers. In the Bible, being a saint or being sanctified always means being separated to God and his work, precisely what Paul said of himself in verse 1 in the words “set apart for the gospel of God.” Having been loved by God and called by him, the Christians at Rome, like all Christians, were then also set apart to him, to live for him and work for him in this world.
This is why the faith of the Roman Christians was “being reported all over the world,” as Paul says it was in verse 8. Because they had been called by God and were separated to him, these believers were different from the culture around them. And people noticed it!
Do people today notice the difference in those who profess to be Christians? There is no simple answer to this question, because the answer is often relative and because it is Yes in one situation and No in another. But notice the connective relationship between the terms in these two verses. Robert Haldane speaks of the believers being loved by God, called by God and being saints, saying rightly, “They were saints because they were called, and they were called because they were beloved of God.” That is, their being saints was not the cause but the result of their election. Being elect, they were saints; that is, they were separated to God. So, if it is ever the case that one who professes to have been called by God is not actually separated unto him—I do not mean “not perfect” but “not headed in God’s direction”—that person is not saved. He or she is no Christian. The one who has been loved and called by God does obey God and does follow after him.
Grace for the Rugged Upward Way
Yet this involves struggle. It requires the grace and peace of God each step of the rugged upward way.
When Paul closes his introduction with the wish that the believers at Rome might experience “grace and peace … from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not merely passing on a traditional (would we say “hackneyed”?) Christian greeting. He is wishing them what they, and we also, need every day we remain on this planet. We have been saved by grace. We must live by grace also. Just as we live moment by moment by drawing breaths of God’s good air, so we must live spiritually moment by moment by drawing on his favor. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). A man who is going through a shattering crisis in his business told me just a short time ago, “The only way I get through it is by spending solid blocks of time with God each morning.” And he is doing it! What is more, the crisis is deepening his sense of God’s presence and strengthening him, rather than doing the opposite.
And peace? We always need peace, for these are not peaceful times. Only fools think them peaceful. These are troublesome times. But those who are in Christ and are drawing on him for their strength live peacefully in the midst of them.
I close with Paul’s own prayer for those great Roman Christians: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” What great gifts these are! How needed! What a wonderful and inexhaustible source of supply!
Paul, &c.—With regard to the word Paul, as it is a subject of no such moment as ought to detain us, and as nothing can be said which has not been mentioned by other expounders, I should say nothing, were it not proper to satisfy some at small expense without being tedious to others; for the subject shall be despatched in a very few words.
They who think that the Apostle attained this name as a trophy for having brought Sergius, the proconsul, to the faith of Christ, are confuted by the testimony of Luke, who shows that he was so called before that time. (Acts 13:7, 9.) Nor does it seem probable to me, that it was given him when he was converted to Christ; though this idea so pleased Augustine, that he took occasion refinedly to philosophize on the subject; for he says, that from a proud Saul he was made a very little (parvulum) disciple of Christ. More probable is the opinion of Origen, who thought that he had two names; for it is not unlikely to be true, that his name, Saul, derived from his kindred, was given him by his parents to indicate his religion and his descent; and that his other name, Paul, was added, to show his right to Roman citizenship; they would not have this honour, then highly valued, to be otherwise than made evident; but they did not so much value it as to withhold a proof of his Israelitic descent. But he has commonly taken the name Paul in his Epistles, and it may be for the following reasons: because in the churches to which he wrote, it was more known and more common, more acceptable in the Roman empire, and less known among his own nation. It was indeed his duty to avoid the foolish suspicion and hatred under which the name of a Jew then laboured among the Romans and in their provinces, and to abstain from inflaming the rage of his own countrymen, and to take care of himself.
A servant of Jesus Christ, &c.—He signalizes himself with these distinctions for the purpose of securing more authority to his doctrine; and this he seeks to secure by two things—first, by asserting his call to the Apostleship; and secondly, by showing that his call was not unconnected with the Church of Rome: for it was of great importance that he should be deemed an Apostle through God’s call, and that he should be known as one destined for the Roman Church. He therefore says, that he was a servant of Christ, and called to the office of an Apostle, thereby intimating that he had not presumptuously intruded into that office. He then adds, that he was chosen, (selectum—selected,) by which he more fully confirms the fact, that he was not one of the people, but a particular Apostle of the Lord. Consistently with this, he had before proceeded from what was general to what was particular, as the Apostleship was an especial service; for all who sustain the office of teaching are to be deemed Christ’s servants, but Apostles, in point of honour, far exceed all others. But the choosing for the gospel, &c., which he afterwards mentions, expresses the end as well as the use of the Apostleship; for he intended briefly to show for what purpose he was called to that function. By saying then that he was servant of Christ, he declared what he had in common with other teachers; by claiming to himself the title of an Apostle, he put himself before others; but as no authority is due to him who wilfully intrudes himself, he reminds us, that he was appointed by God.
Then the meaning is,—that Paul was a servant of Christ, not any kind of servant, but an Apostle, and that by the call of God, and not by presumptuous intrusion: then follows a clearer explanation of the Apostolic office,—it was ordained for the preaching of the Gospel. For I cannot agree with those who refer this call of which he speaks to the eternal election of God; and who understand the separation, either that from his mother’s womb, which he mentions in Gal. 1:15, or that which Luke refers to, when Paul was appointed for the Gentiles: but I consider that he simply glories in having God as the author of his call, lest any one should think that he had through his own rashness taken this honour to himself.
We must here observe, that all are not fitted for the ministry of the word; for a special call is necessary: and even those who seem particularly fitted ought to take heed lest they thrust themselves in without a call. But as to the character of the Apostolic and of the Episcopal call, we shall consider it in another place. We must further observe, that the office of an Apostle is the preaching of the gospel. It hence appears what just objects of ridicule are those dumb dogs, who render themselves conspicuous only by their mitre and their crook, and boast themselves to be the successors of the Apostles!
The word, servant, imports nothing else but a minister, for it refers to what is official. I mention this to remove the mistake of those who too much refine on this expression, and think that there is here to be understood a contrast between the service of Moses and that of Christ.
- Which he had before promised, &c.—As the suspicion of being new subtracts much from the authority of a doctrine, he confirms the faith of the gospel by antiquity; as though he said, “Christ came not on the earth unexpectedly, nor did he introduce a doctrine of a new kind and not heard of before, inasmuch as he, and his gospel too, had been promised and expected from the beginning of the world.” But as antiquity is often fabulous, he brings witnesses, and those approved, even the Prophets of God, that he might remove every suspicion. He in the third place adds, that their testimonies were duly recorded, that is, in the Holy Scriptures.
We may learn from this passage what the gospel is: he teaches us, not that it was promulgated by the Prophets, but only promised. If then the Prophets promised the gospel, it follows, that it was revealed, when our Lord was at length manifested in the flesh. They are then mistaken, who confound the promises with the gospel, since the gospel is properly the appointed preaching of Christ as manifested, in whom the promises themselves are exhibited.
- Concerning his own Son, &c.—This is a remarkable passage, by which we are taught that the whole gospel is included in Christ, so that if any removes one step from Christ, he withdraws himself from the gospel. For since he is the living and express image of the Father, it is no wonder, that he alone is set before us as one to whom our whole faith is to be directed and in whom it is to centre. It is then a definition of the gospel, by which Paul expresses what is summarily comprehended in it. I have rendered the words which follow, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the same case; which seems to me to be most agreeable with the context. We hence learn, that he who has made a due proficiency in the knowledge of Christ, has acquired every thing which can be learned from the gospel; and, on the other hand, that they who seek to be wise without Christ, are not only foolish, but even completely insane.
Who was made, &c.—Two things must be found in Christ, in order that we may obtain salvation in him, even divinity and humanity. His divinity possesses power, righteousness, life, which by his humanity are conveyed to us. Hence the Apostle has expressly mentioned both in the summary he gives of the gospel, that Christ was manifested in the flesh—and that in it he declared himself to be the Son of God. So John says; after having declared that the Word was made flesh, he adds, that in that flesh there was a glory as of the only-begotten Son of God. (John 1:14.) That he specially notices the descent and lineage of Christ from his ancestor David, is not superfluous; for by this he calls back our attention to the promise, that we may not doubt but that he is the very person who had been formerly promised. So well known was the promise made to David, that it appears to have been a common thing among the Jews to call the Messiah the Son of David. This then—that Christ did spring from David—was said for the purpose of confirming our faith.
He adds, according to the flesh; and he adds this, that we may understand that he had something more excellent than flesh, which he brought from heaven, and did not take from David, even that which he afterwards mentions, the glory of the divine nature. Paul does further by these words not only declare that Christ had real flesh, but he also clearly distinguishes his human from his divine nature; and thus he refutes the impious raving of Servetus, who assigned flesh to Christ, composed of three uncreated elements.
- Declared the Son of God, &c.: or, if you prefer, determined (definitus); as though he had said, that the power, by which he was raised from the dead, was something like a decree, by which he was proclaimed the Son of God, according to what is said in Ps. 2:7, “I have this day begotten thee:” for this begetting refers to what was made known. Though some indeed find here three separate evidences of the divinity of Christ—“power,” understanding thereby miracles—then the testimony of the Spirit—and, lastly, the resurrection from the dead—I yet prefer to connect them together, and to reduce these three things to one, in this manner—that Christ was declared the Son of God by openly exercising a real celestial power, that is, the power of the Spirit, when he rose from the dead; but that this power is comprehended, when a conviction of it is imprinted on our hearts by the same Spirit. The language of the Apostle well agrees with this view; for he says that he was declared by power, because power, peculiar to God, shone forth in him, and uncontestably proved him to be God; and this was indeed made evident by his resurrection. Paul says the same thing in another place; having stated, that by death the weakness of the flesh appeared, he at the same time extols the power of the Spirit in his resurrection; (2 Cor. 13:4.) This glory, however, is not made known to us, until the same Spirit imprints a conviction of it on our hearts. And that Paul includes, together with the wonderful energy of the Spirit, which Christ manifested by rising from the dead, the testimony which all the faithful feel in their hearts, is even evident from this—that he expressly calls it the Spirit of Holiness; as though he had said, that the Spirit, as far as it sanctifies, confirms and ratifies that evidence of its power which it once exhibited. For the Scripture is wont often to ascribe such titles to the Spirit, as tend to illustrate our present subject. Thus He is called by our Lord the Spirit of Truth, on account of the effect which he mentions; (John 14:17.)
Besides, a divine power is said to have shone forth in the resurrection of Christ for this reason—because he rose by his own power, as he had often testified: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” (John 2:19;) “No man taketh it from me,” &c.; (John 10:18.) For he gained victory over death, (to which he yielded with regard to the weakness of the flesh,) not by aid sought from another, but by the celestial operation of his own Spirit.
- Through whom we have received, &c.—Having completed his definition of the gospel, which he introduced for the recommendation of his office, he now returns to speak of his own call; and it was a great point that this should be proved to the Romans. By mentioning grace and apostleship apart, he adopts a form of speech, which must be understood as meaning, gratuitous apostleship or the favour of the apostleship; by which he means, that it was wholly through divine favour, not through his own worthiness, that he had been chosen for so high an office. For though it has hardly any thing connected with it in the estimation of the world, except dangers, labours, hatred, and disgrace; yet before God and his saints, it possesses a dignity of no common or ordinary kind. It is therefore deservedly counted a favour. If you prefer to say, “I have received grace that I should be an Apostle,” the sense would be the same.2
The expression, on account of his name, is rendered by Ambrose, “in his name,” as though it meant, that the Apostle was appointed in the place of Christ to preach the gospel, according to that passage, “We are ambassadors for Christ,” &c. (2 Cor. 5:20.) Their opinion, however, seems better, who take name for knowledge; for the gospel is preached for this end—that we may believe on the name of the Son of God. (1 John 3:23.) And Paul is said to have been a chosen vessel, to carry the name of Christ among the Gentiles. (Acts 9:15.) On account then of his name, which means the same, as though he had said, that I might make known what Christ is.
For the obedience of faith, &c.—That is, we have received a command to preach the gospel among all nations, and this gospel they obey by faith. By stating the design of his calling, he again reminds the Romans of his office, as though he said, “It is indeed my duty to discharge the office committed to me, which is to preach the word; and it is your duty to hear the word and willingly to obey it; you will otherwise make void the vocation which the Lord has bestowed on me.”
We hence learn, that they perversely resist the authority of God and upset the whole of what he has ordained, who irreverently and contemptuously reject the preaching of the gospel; the design of which is to constrain us to obey God. We must also notice here what faith is; the name of obedience is given to it, and for this reason—because the Lord calls us by his gospel; we respond to his call by faith; as on the other hand, the chief act of disobedience to God is unbelief, I prefer rendering the sentence, “For the obedience of faith,” rather than, “In order that they may obey the faith;” for the last is not strictly correct, except taken figuratively, though it be found once in the Acts, 6:7. Faith is properly that by which, we obey the gospel.
Among all nations, &c. It was not enough for him to have been appointed an Apostle, except his ministry had reference to some who were to be taught: hence he adds, that his apostleship extended to all nations. He afterwards calls himself more distinctly the Apostle of the Romans, when he says, that they were included in the number of the nations, to whom he had been given as a minister. And further, the Apostles had in common the command to preach the gospel to all the world; and they were not, as pastors and bishops, set over certain churches. But Paul, in addition to the general undertaking of the apostolic function, was constituted, by a special appointment, to be a minister to proclaim the gospel among the Gentiles. It is no objection to this, that he was forbidden to pass through Macedonia and to preach the word in Mysia: for this was done, not that there were limits prescribed to him, but that he was for a time to go elsewhere; for the harvest was not as yet ripe there.
Ye are the called of Jesus Christ, &c. He assigns a reason more nearly connected with them—because the Lord had already exhibited in them an evidence by which he had manifested that he had called them to a participation of the gospel. It hence followed, that if they wished their own calling to remain sure, they were not to reject the ministry of Paul, who had been chosen by the same election of God. I therefore take this clause, “the called of Jesus Christ,” as explanatory, as though the particle “even” were inserted; for he means, that they were by calling made partakers of Christ. For they who shall be heirs of eternal life, are chosen by the celestial Father to be children in Christ; and when chosen, they are committed to his care and protection as their shepherd.
- To all of you who are at Rome, &c. By this happy arrangement he sets forth what there is in us worthy of commendation; he says, that first the Lord through his own kindness made us the objects of his favour and love; and then that he has called us; and thirdly, that he has called us to holiness: but this high honour only then exists, when we are not wanting to our call.
Here a rich truth presents itself to us, to which I shall briefly refer, and leave it to be meditated upon by each individual: Paul does by no means ascribe the praise of our salvation to ourselves, but derives it altogether from the fountain of God’s free and paternal love towards us; for he makes this the first thing—God loves us: and what is the cause of his love, except his own goodness alone? On this depends our calling, by which in his own time he seals his adoption to those whom he had before freely chosen. We also learn from this passage that none rightly connect themselves with the number of the faithful, except they feel assured that the Lord is gracious, however unworthy and wretched sinners they may be, and except they be stimulated by his goodness and aspire to holiness, for he hath not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness. (1 Thess. 4:7.) As the Greek can be rendered in the second person, I see no reason for any change.
Grace to you and peace, &c. Nothing is more desirable than to have God propitious to us, and this is signified by grace; and then to have prosperity and success in all things flowing from him, and this is intimated by peace; for however things may seem to smile on us, if God be angry, even blessing itself is turned to a curse. The very foundation then of our felicity is the favour of God, by which we enjoy true and solid prosperity, and by which also our salvation is promoted even when we are in adversities. And then as he prays to God for peace, we must understand, that whatever good comes to us, it is the fruit of divine benevolence. Nor must we omit to notice, that he prays at the same time to the Lord Jesus Christ for these blessings. Worthily indeed is this honour rendered to him, who is not only the administrator and dispenser of his Father’s bounty to us, but also works all things in connection with him. It was, however, the special object of the Apostle to show, that through him all God’s blessings come to us.2
There are those who prefer to regard the word peace as signifying quietness of conscience; and that this meaning belongs to it sometimes, I do not deny: but since it is certain that the Apostle wished to give us here a summary of God’s blessings, the former meaning, which is adduced by Bucer, is much the most suitable. Anxiously wishing then to the godly what makes up real happiness, he betakes himself, as he did before, to the very fountain itself, even the favour of God, which not only alone brings to us eternal felicity, but is also the source of all blessings in this life.
The opening lines of Romans follow the basic ancient letter form: A to B, greeting. In a way that he is particularly fond of, Paul expands the elements of this form with material that sets the tone and anticipates what follows. In vv. 1–6, allowing himself unusual length, he describes both his calling and the gospel he proclaims.
1 As in all of his letters, Paul uses his Roman name, Paulos. The shift from “Saul” occurs in the biblical context where he came in contact with a Roman official (Ac 13:6–12). Paul’s relation to Christ is primary, so to express his attachment to his Lord he uses the term “servant” (doulos, GK 1528; lit., “slave,” suggesting full, but not unwilling, obedience). By beginning in this fashion, Paul initially puts himself on the same plane as his readers. But Paul is more than a “servant” of Jesus Christ. He is an “apostle” by divine calling (the sense of “called” here; cf. 1 Co 1:1) and accordingly possesses a special authority as Christ’s appointee. This would include not only his right to preach the gospel (believers in general could do that) but to found and supervise churches and, if necessary, to discipline them.
Paul has been “set apart” (aphōrismenos, GK 928) in order to proclaim “the gospel of God” (euangelion theou; cf. 15:16). As a Pharisee he had been set apart to a life of strict observance of Jewish law and custom. Now his life’s work has become the proclamation of the gospel, the good news God has for humanity—something this epistle will focus on powerfully. Possibly Paul locates the time of this “setting apart” at the Damascus Road commission (cf. Ac 9:15; 26:16), but more probably he thought of it as occurring already at his birth. Thus in Galatians 1:15–16 he refers to being “set apart” (using the same verb as in Romans) before he was born (perhaps an allusion to Jer 1:5) and being called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
The word “gospel” (euangelion, GK 2295) in its verbal form (euangelizomai) has a rich background in the LXX. The “proclamation of good news” in Isaiah (40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1) comes readily in the NT to indicate good news referring to Jesus Christ (cf. Jesus’ citation of Isa 61:1 in Lk 4:18). “The gospel of God” is what Romans is all about.
2 Before the historic events providing the basis for the gospel message unfolded, God “promised” the good news in the prophetic Scriptures (16:26). Promise means more than prophecy, because it commits the Almighty to make good his word, whereas a prophecy could be just an advance announcement of something that would happen. The concept of promise and the associated idea of God’s faithfulness permeate Romans (see, e.g., 4:13–25; 9:4; 15:8). God did not invent the gospel to cover up disappointment over Israel’s failure to receive Christ. The gospel was God’s purpose from the beginning (cf. 1 Pe 1:20). Nor did Paul create the gospel, which was “his” (Ro 2:16; 16:25) in an entirely different sense (cf. Gal 1:10). The reference to “the Holy Scriptures” prepares the reader for the rather copious use of the OT in Romans, beginning with 1:17. For Paul, as for the early church, the gospel is the fulfillment of the OT expectation.
3–4 The gospel above all centers in God’s “Son,” who at the end of v. 4 is referred to as “our Lord.” These two verses appear to enshrine and adapt an early liturgical confession. This seems evident not only from the weighty content of the material but especially from the balanced, antithetical form: (lit.) “born of the seed of David according to the flesh”; “appointed Son of God according to the Spirit [or, possibly, his spirit] of holiness.” In the original manuscripts all the letters were capitals, and hence it is not clear whether the word “Spirit” here should be capitalized—i.e., whether this is a reference to the human spirit of Jesus or a reference to the Holy Spirit. The balanced construction of kata pneuma (GK 4460) over against kata sarka (GK 4922), may suggest “spirit” in contrast to “flesh,” perhaps making the point that the human nature of Jesus was so holy, so absolutely free of sin, that death could not hold him (cf. Ac 2:24). If one takes this statement as a flesh-spirit antithesis, this would be a reference to the twofold nature of Jesus Christ: as to his humanity a descendant of David; as to the holiness of his spirit, his deity, the Son of God. More probably, however, “Spirit of holiness” is a Hebraic way of referring to the Holy Spirit rather than to Jesus’ spirit, and these two clauses are to be understood as sequential. That is, in the humility of the incarnation Jesus was born a descendant of David, but now through “his resurrection from the dead” he has been appointed Son of God in power by means of the Spirit.
There may be a suggestion here that Jesus, anointed and sustained by the Holy Spirit in the days of his flesh, was acknowledged by the fact of the resurrection to have successfully endured the tests and trials of his earthly life, having been obedient even to death. By resurrection he has become a life-giving spirit (1 Co 15:45). His rising was indeed “from the dead.” But Paul says more: “of the dead” (the simple genitive nekrōn, GK 3738), suggesting that Christ is the forerunner of others in this transformation (cf. 15:20–21).
“As to his human nature,” i.e., becoming a man, he became not only an Israelite (9:5) but a son of David (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32; Ac 13:22–23; 2 Ti 2:8), a qualification he needed as Messiah (Isa 11:1). With the affirmation of the divine sonship of Jesus at the beginning of v. 3, Paul guards his whole statement from doing service for a heretical, adoptionist Christology. We have here a three-stage Christology (cf. Php 2:6–11). The period of Christ’s earthly life and ministry was followed by another phase—that which resulted from his resurrection. The point of “declared” or “appointed” (horisthentos, GK 3988) is not that Jesus here became the “Son of God” for the first time but rather that his sonship, veiled by the incarnation, is made unmistakably plain by the resurrection. “With power” (en dynamei, GK 1539) may belong with “declared,” but it may with greater warrant be joined with “Son of God,” indicating the new quality of life Jesus had after his resurrection (Php 3:10; Col 1:29).
Appropriately, Jesus Christ is now described as “our Lord” (tou kyriou [GK 3261] hēmōn). Though the title was fitting during his earthly ministry, it attained more frequent use and greater meaning following the resurrection (Ac 2:36; 10:36). Notable is the fact that in this initial statement about the gospel nothing is said concerning the redeeming work of Christ, which is reserved for later consideration (Ro 3:21–26; 4:25; 5:6–21). It was the infinite worth of the Son that made his saving work possible.
5 Now the apostle returns to his responsibility to proclaim the good news (cf. v. 1). Two problems present themselves in v. 5, and they are somewhat related. Who is indicated by “we,” and how should one understand the phrase “all the Gentiles”? Clearly, in using “we” Paul cannot be including his readers, because they did not possess apostleship. He could be referring to other apostles, of whom the Roman believers must have heard, but this would be unexpected, and it is not amplified. Mention of the intended sphere of labor—“among all the Gentiles”—makes the limitation of the “we” to Paul (as a literary plural) natural, since the Gentiles constituted his special field of labor (cf. 15:16, 18, where the word “obey” corresponds to the word “obedience” in this passage). On the other hand, “all the Gentiles” (pasin tois ethnesin) can equally well be rendered “all the nations” or “all peoples” (cf. Mt 28:19). This would favor the wider reference of “we” to all the apostles, since Israel would be included as one of the peoples. It is difficult finally to decide this question. The mission of Paul in preaching the gospel is “for his name’s sake,” i.e., for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s apostleship is by the calling (cf. v. 1), and hence the grace, of God. “Grace and apostleship” are probably to be understood in the sense of “the gift of apostleship” (a hendiadys, the two words referring to one thing). “Grace” (charis, GK 5921), the unmerited favor of God, is a word of key importance to Paul since it captures the essence of the gospel.
The desired response to the gospel message is “the obedience of faith” (hypakoēn pisteōs, GK 5633, 4411), which probably means “the obedience that comes from faith.” It would be equally possible, however, to understand these words as an apposite genitive: “the obedience that is faith.” After all, Paul’s gospel calls preeminently for faith (cf., e.g., 10:9–11). Of course, it also calls for obedience, and for Paul the two are ultimately inseparable. (On obedience, see 15:18; 16:26; on faith, see 1:16–17; 10:17.)
6–7a Just as Paul was “called” to apostleship (v. 1), the readers too are “called to belong to Jesus Christ” and “called to be saints.” The idea here is the divine initiative that is responsible for their conversion (cf. 2 Ti 1:9–10). The readers are “loved by God”; they are the recipients of unmerited love (agapē, GK 27) that makes grace possible. The word “saint” (hagios, GK 41), the common term designating believers, has almost the same force as the expression Paul uses for himself when he says he was “set apart” (v. 1). While it does not indicate actual condition (as opposed to position) of righteousness, the designation implies the holiness to which every child of God is called (Ro 6:19, 22). On the words “in Rome,” see Introduction, p. 23).
7b At length the apostle is ready to extend a greeting to his readers—“grace to you and peace.” Ordinary letters of that period usually contained a single word meaning “greeting” (as in Jas 1:1). Paul, however, is partial to terms with theological import. He desires for his readers a continuing and deepening experience of spiritual blessing that only God can bestow. “Grace” (charis) is above all the word that captures the essence of God’s favor toward sinners; “peace” (eirēnē, GK 1645) refers to the fruit of grace, a šālôm (GK 8934) that connotes ultimate well-being in every regard. It is important to note that the Father and the Son are the joint benefactors. While the NT contains several explicit statements of the deity of our Lord, in addition it has many that imply this deity, as here in the formulaic linking of God and Jesus.
The Salutation (Rom. 1:1–7)
The first seventeen verses of Romans serve as an introduction to the epistle and fall into three parts. The first part, verses 1–7, is Paul’s salutation. In the second part, verses 8–15, Paul introduces himself and speaks of his desire to visit Rome. The third and final part is verses 16–17, in which Paul broaches the seminal theme of his gospel, justification by faith for both Jew and Gentile.
First, the salutation. Letters in Hellenistic times followed a standard literary pattern. Unlike the modern convention of beginning letters with an address to the recipient, salutations in the Greco-Roman world normally included three pieces of information: the name of the sender, the name of the recipient, and a brief greeting. Two letters recorded in the book of Acts (15:23 and 23:26) follow this pattern quite closely, as do 1 Thessalonians and James.
In writing to Rome Paul expands the salutation considerably. After introducing himself as one commissioned for the gospel of God (v. 1), he plunges into a description of the gospel and his apostleship. Not until verse 7 does he complete the salutation with mention of the recipients and a greeting. In Greek the first seven verses are a single sentence of some ninety words! This is the longest and most formal introduction of a Pauline epistle, containing a mixture of conventional formulae and innovation. This is probably due to the fact that Paul is writing to a church which he neither founded nor visited. He expands the salutation into a brief credo of the faith which he holds in common with the Romans in order to establish credibility with a church to which he is personally unknown. Moreover, if Paul has any apprehensions that his subsequent message might raise eyebrows among his Roman readers, he endeavors from the outset to make the most favorable impression possible. Finally, Paul normally mentions his fellow missionaries as co-senders of his epistles (Sosthenes, Timothy, or Silvanus). In Romans, however, he writes alone. One gets the impression from this and from the overall salutation that the apostle intends to take special responsibility for the contents of this epistle.
1:1–2 / The first verse of Romans is an extraordinary testimony to the God who breaks into the world of humanity. Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. Here are two planes of reality. There is Paul, a human being who belongs to the same world we do; and there is God, who is beyond our world and yet intersects it with the gospel of Jesus Christ. God and humanity, heaven and earth, the eternal and temporal, the invisible and visible. Paul’s message is not about a closed universe in which human beings are laboratory rats conditioned by their environment. The first stroke of his pen heralds an open universe, a world much larger than our empirical experience of it, a world, to be sure, which begins at our human level but which is not limited to it. There is a God who breaks into this world and enlarges its possibilities. Above and yet within the dirge of human history can be heard a single pure note of divine music, penetrating and transforming the entire orchestration. God has spoken in the gospel, and the words of this world can never again be the same.
Paul’s role in this divine-human encounter is characterized by the words servant, apostle, and set apart. Each term is packed with meaning. The word doulos, which in Greek means a slave, is in the niv rendered servant. In ancient Greece and Rome there were basically two social classes, the upper-class, known as makarioi, and the lower-class, douloi. Slavery is the ownership of one person by another; a slave was hence the possession, property, or commodity of someone else. Slavery in the ancient world was not based on theories of racial inferiority, as it was in the antebellum South, for instance. In this respect ancient slavery was a more humane institution. Nevertheless, if slaves were not regarded as chattel, they were regarded as inferior beings, destined for a variety of roles of servitude, constituting perhaps one-fourth of the population.
In referring to himself as a servant of Christ Jesus, Paul does not desire to conjure up abject associations of subjugation, drudgery, and cruelty. His intention rather is to assert his exclusive allegiance to God’s absolute sovereignty. As a slave, Paul belongs to God. It is not Paul who determines what he will say and do; God’s sovereign decision determines who he is and what he must do. In this respect Paul’s use of doulos agrees with its usage in the ot. Moses (Josh. 14:7), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), David (Ps. 89:3), the prophets, and Israel are called “servants of the Lord.” Israel had been chosen by God and was his peculiar people and “treasured possession” (Exod. 19:5), uniquely set apart by God and hence singularly committed to God. Similarly, God’s claim on Paul is total; Paul’s loyalty to God is final.
James Dunn (Romans 1–8, p. 8) suggests that Paul employs doulos with specific reference to the Servant of the Lord hymns in Isaiah (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–11a; 52:13–53:12). The second hymn declares, “You are my servant” (Isa. 49:3), and adds, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6). Paul’s life was a commentary on this verse. He considered himself the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; Gal. 2:9), and he aspired to preach to Jews and Gentiles, not only in Rome but to “the limits of the West,” as Clement of Rome would later say (1 Clem. 5:7).
Paul also refers to himself as an apostle. The Greek noun apostolos, from which the English word “apostle” is derived, comes from the verb apostellein, “to send someone with a commission.” It was at his conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent reflection on that event (Acts 9:1–22) that Paul became aware that he was God’s “chosen instrument to carry [God’s] name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). By prefixing called to apostle Paul denotes that he is no self-appointed ambassador, but divinely appointed and commissioned. He stands in the tradition of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–2), Moses (Exod. 3:10ff.), Isaiah (6:8–9), and Jeremiah (1:4–5), all of whom were called by God. Apostle speaks not only the language of election but also the language of grace, for “it is not the godly who are called, but precisely the ungodly whom God has justified and made his own people” (Kaylor, Covenant Community, p. 21). “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (1 Cor. 15:9–10).
The consciousness of being God’s chosen instrument is further established by set apart. Paul’s election was understood not as a general truism (e.g., that all people are loved by God), nor in a sense of national pride (e.g., that most peoples consider their nations to play a unique role in history). Like every Jew, Paul knew that God had chosen men and women in the history of Israel to do his particular will (e.g., Jer. 1:4–5). Set apart expressed Paul’s personal destiny; he was gripped by the conviction that he was chosen for a unique vocation, for “God set me apart from birth and called me by his grace” (Gal. 1:15; see also Acts 13:2). The Greek word for set apart, aphorismenos, is the normal Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for “Pharisee,” which probably means “to separate.” If Paul is indulging in a word play he seems to indicate that he now is a different kind of Pharisee from what he had been. Previously he had been a Pharisee separated from Gentiles; now he is separated for them!
Verse 1 is unambiguous about Paul’s self-understanding. He does not fancy himself a religious genius, nor does he trumpet his creative ability. His message is not from himself but from God, and whatever honor is ascribed to Paul must be attributed not to any greatness in him but to a power above him, to God who has radically intersected his life. The preeminence of that encounter forever changed his orientation, and at a deeper level his self-understanding. Only one response could be appropriate to the overwhelming favor of God, and that was to allow Christ absolute claim over his life, and to surrender himself to a truth and to a task which alone were worthy of his existence.
That truth was the gospel of God. Gospel in Greek comes from a compound word meaning “good report,” or as we say, “good news.” In saying that he was set apart for the gospel of God Paul does not mean, generally speaking, that he now believes the gospel whereas he formerly did not. He means that he has been specifically commissioned to proclaim the gospel, to make it known. For Paul the gospel was not something a person possesses, but rather something which possesses him. The gospel was more than a state of affairs or a truth which could be exhausted in a propositional statement. Rather, it is the ceaseless energy of God’s love to illuminate the darkness, whose purpose it is to bring salvation to the lost. The gospel is really not a thing, but a person, Jesus Christ!
God promised the gospel beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scripture regarding his Son (vv. 2–3; see Titus 1:2). This connects Paul’s experience as a Christian with his history as a Jew. It establishes that Jesus Christ is not an afterthought of God, a scissors-and-paste remedy when the human experiment failed. Rather, Jesus Christ had long been foreseen in Israel, and apart from him all that had gone before was incomplete. Jesus Christ was the goal in a long history of salvation, the anchor runner, so to speak, in the divine relay from Abraham to the day of salvation. God’s work in Israel had not been an impersonal force, randomly groping toward a higher state of perfection. Paul is rather proclaiming the one, personal God who before all ages created the world, called a people in Abraham, and throughout their history purposefully and patiently increased their knowledge of him. Then, in Paul’s own time, God spoke his last word. The awesome finality that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose stamped Paul’s consciousness with an indelible sense of duty and obligation. Paul is a servant, called, apostle, and set apart.
1:3–4 / Verses 1–2 introduce the gospel, but verses 3–4 explore its meaning. The gospel regards God’s Son, which means that Jesus Christ is the content of it. Paul names Jesus Christ four times in the first seven verses (vv. 1, 4, 6, 7). This leaves no doubt that God’s Son is not merely the founder of the gospel, he is the gospel!
Verses 3–4 contain a brief credal statement, the parallelism of which is clearer in Greek than in the niv: As to his human nature he was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. It is likely that Paul is citing a christological formula with which the Romans were already familiar, not unlike 2 Timothy 2:8. This is a much debated passage, but a straightforward reading of it offers the most credible understanding. The subject is God’s Son who was revealed in two stages or is known in two time periods: according to the flesh he was born of Davidic descent, according to the Spirit he was declared Son of God in power. The Greek word for “flesh” (niv, human nature) is often in Paul used pejoratively to imply human weakness, fallibility, and sin. But there are instances where Paul uses the term to mean “human existence” without any negative reference, and this appears to be one of them. In referring to Jesus as a descendant of David, Paul is speaking of his earthly, preresurrection life. Jesus is thus the Messiah promised to David (see 2 Sam. 7:11–14), indeed more than the Messiah, the Son of God, but the Son of God in humility, incognito. The revelation and ministry of God’s Son thus stands in continuity with the ot, the “gospel [which God] promised beforehand through his prophets” (v. 2).
The resurrection, however, separates the two stages or time periods. It is a dividing line not in Jesus’ status as Son of God, but in his function as Son of God. As seed of David Jesus was the Son in humility; as Son of God in power he enters his role as exalted Lord. The niv rendering of verse 4 (he was declared with power to be the Son of God) might suggest that Jesus became the Son of God at the resurrection, although he had not been so beforehand. That is scarcely Paul’s thought. At the resurrection Jesus was constituted Son of God in power, whereas before the resurrection he had been Son of God in suffering. Thus, verses 3–4 are not about Jesus’ promotion or adoption as God’s Son. Both parts of the formula are regarding God’s Son (v. 3), but God’s Son in two manifestations: as servant and Lord, in humiliation and exaltation, in earthly ministry and heavenly reign.
1:5 / Paul now moves from the content of the gospel to the commission of the gospel. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship. Grace is not a vague force of benevolence in the universe, nor merely the good intentions of the Almighty. Grace is absolutely personal, for it is focused in and channeled through the person of Jesus Christ—Through him … we received grace. Grace is an act, not a feeling or disposition. It is something which God did at a particular point in space and time when Pontius Pilate was governor from a.d. 26 to 36 of an imperial province on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. Grace is the incomprehensible fact that God loves the world in spite of its rebelliousness. It is the master plan of God’s love, the wonderful and awesome surprise that where the world deserved nothing from God it could hope for everything from God.
Grace was the origin of Paul’s apostleship. The nt makes two seemingly contradictory statements about Paul. By his own admission he was “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:12–17), but he was also a “chosen instrument” of God (Acts 9:15–16). These two statements reveal the paradox of grace. Grace is the intersection where unconditional love meets human unworthiness.
Paul’s commission is to lead the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. This passage, along with verses 13–15 and 11:13–21, indicates that Paul is writing to Gentiles and that his commission is to bring them to “the obedience of faith,” to translate the Greek literally. This phrase both commences (1:5) and concludes the epistle (16:26), and everything which Paul says in between serves this goal. There is no separation in Paul’s mind between faith and obedience, between believing and doing. “Only he who believes is obedient,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “and only he who is obedient believes” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 69). The Book of James is particularly aware of the problem of saying one thing and doing another (James 2:14–26). Jesus himself taught that a tree is known by the fruit it bears (Matt. 7:15–20; see also 21:28–32). His call to “Follow me” demands an act which embodies a belief.
1:6–7 / Paul concludes the salutation in verses 6–7. He has been commissioned as apostle to the Gentiles, and hence he writes to the Gentiles in Rome, who, like himself, are called to belong to Jesus Christ. Paul’s reputation had preceded him to Rome. He makes no mention of his conversion or his years on the mission field; surely these have long been identified with his name. But less desirable reports have also been associated with his name. Shortly after writing Romans Paul traveled to Jerusalem where James reported to him, “Many thousands of Jews … have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses” (Acts 21:20–21). Aware of such reports, Paul does not fail at the beginning of Romans to point out his divine commission as well as his orthodoxy and his common faith to the Romans, and to appeal to the unity of all who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
The Romans are loved by God and called to be saints. Luther notes that God’s love precedes his call. God does not demand that humanity do certain things to earn his love; rather, he loves humanity and enables it to do things according to his will (Epistle to the Romans, p. 21). The word saints comes from Hebrew and Greek roots meaning “to be set apart” or “holy.” A saint is a saint not because of any personal merit but because of God’s love and call.
The salutation concludes with Paul’s characteristic ascription of grace and peace. Grace (charis) is a Greek concept which summarizes the gospel in a single word; peace (šālôm) is a Hebrew concept which means wholeness and well-being. Both come only from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the chief blessings of the old and new covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The essence of the gospel, as T. W. Manson rightly concludes, is to know God as Father (8:15; Gal. 4:6) and to acknowledge Jesus as Lord (10:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11; see Romans, p. 941).
Paul and the gospel
Letter-writing conventions vary from culture to culture. Our modern way is to address our correspondent first (‘Dear Joan’) and to identify ourselves only at the end (‘Yours sincerely, John’). In the ancient world, however, the custom was to reverse the order, the writer announcing himself or herself first and the correspondent next (‘John to Joan, greetings!’). Paul normally followed the convention of his day, but here he deviates from it by giving a much more elaborate description of himself than usual, in relation to the gospel. The reason is probably that he did not found the church in Rome. Nor has he yet visited it. He feels the need, therefore, to establish his credentials as an apostle and to summarize his gospel. Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, he begins.
‘Servant’ is doulos and should really be translated ‘slave’. In the Old Testament there was an honourable succession of individual Israelites, beginning with Moses and Joshua, who called themselves Yahweh’s ‘servants’ or ‘slaves’ (e.g. ‘O Lord, truly I am your servant’), while Yahweh also designated Israel collectively ‘my servant’.2 In the New Testament, however, it is remarkable how easily the title ‘Lord’ has been transferred from Yahweh to Jesus (e.g. verses 4, 7), while the Lord’s ‘servants’ are no longer Israel, but all his people, irrespective of whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
‘Apostle’, on the other hand, was a distinctively Christian name from the beginning, in that Jesus himself chose it as his designation of the Twelve, and Paul claimed to have been added to their number.4 The distinctive qualifications of the apostles were that they were directly and personally called and commissioned by Jesus, that they were eye-witnesses of the historical Jesus, at least (and specially) of his resurrection, and that they were sent out by him to preach with his authority. The New Testament apostle thus resembled both the Old Testament prophet, who was ‘called’ and ‘sent’ by Yahweh to speak in his name, and the shaliach of rabbinic Judaism, who was ‘an authorized representative or delegate, legally empowered to act (within prescribed limits) on behalf of his principal’. It is against this double background that the apostle’s authoritative teaching role is to be understood.
Paul’s twofold designation as ‘slave’ and ‘apostle’ is particularly striking when these words are contrasted with one another. First, ‘slave’ is a title of great humility; it expressed Paul’s sense of personal insignificance, without rights of his own, having been purchased to belong to Christ. ‘Apostle’, on the other hand, was a title of great authority; it expressed his sense of official privilege and dignity by reason of his appointment by Jesus Christ. Secondly, ‘slave’ is a general Christian word (every disciple looks to Jesus Christ as Lord), whereas ‘apostle’ is a special title (reserved for the Twelve and Paul and perhaps one or two others such as James). As an apostle, he had been set apart for the gospel of God.
How did Paul intend his readers to understand his reference to having been set apart? The verb aphōrismenos has the same root meaning as ‘Pharisee’ (pharisaios). Was this deliberate, since Paul had been a Pharisee? Anders Nygren, for example, reflecting his Lutheran tradition, writes that ‘as a Pharisee Paul had set himself apart for the law, but now God had set him apart for … the gospel … Thus in the very first verse of this epistle we encounter the letter’s basic juxtaposition of law and gospel which, from one point of view, is the theme of Romans.’8 It is questionable, however, whether Paul’s readers would have picked up this play on words. In his own mind Paul is more likely to have seen a parallel between his consecration to be an apostle and Jeremiah’s to be a prophet. For in Galatians Paul wrote that God had set him apart (using the same word) from birth, and then called him to preach Christ to the Gentiles, just as God had said to Jeremiah: ‘Before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’10 We need, therefore, to think of Paul’s Damascus road encounter with Christ not only as his conversion but as his commissioning to be an apostle (egō apostellō se, ‘I send you’, ‘I make you an apostle’), and especially to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul’s two verbal expressions, then, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, belong inseparably together. One cannot think of ‘apostle’ without thinking of ‘gospel’, and vice versa. As an apostle, it was Paul’s responsibility to receive, formulate, defend, maintain and proclaim the gospel, and so combine the roles of trustee, advocate and herald. As Professor Cranfield has put it, the apostle’s function was ‘to serve the gospel by an authoritative and normative proclamation of it’.
Paul now proceeds to give a six-point analysis of the gospel, to which he has been set apart.
- The origin of the gospel is God
‘God is the most important word in this epistle,’ Dr Leon Morris has written. ‘Romans is a book about God. No topic is treated with anything like the frequency of God. Everything Paul touches in this letter he relates to God … There is nothing like it elsewhere.’ So the Christian good news is the gospel of God. The apostles did not invent it; it was revealed and entrusted to them by God.
This is still the first and most basic conviction which underlies all authentic evangelism. What we have to share with others is neither a miscellany of human speculations, nor one more religion to add to the rest, nor really a religion at all. It is rather the gospel of God, God’s own good news for a lost world. Without this conviction, evangelism is evacuated of its content, purpose and drive.
- The attestation of the gospel is Scripture
Verse 2: the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. That is to say, although God revealed the gospel to the apostles, it did not come to them as a complete novelty, because he had already promised it through his prophets in Old Testament Scripture. There is, in fact, an essential continuity between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus himself was quite clear that the Scriptures bore witness to him, that he was the son of man of Daniel 7 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and that, as it had been written, he had to suffer in order to enter into his glory. In the Acts we hear Peter quoting the Old Testament in reference to Jesus’ resurrection, exaltation and gift of the Spirit.15 We also watch Paul reasoning with people out of the Scriptures that the Christ must suffer and rise, and that he was Jesus. He similarly insisted that it was ‘according to the Scriptures’ that Christ both died for our sins and was raised on the third day.17 It was thus that both the law and the prophets bore witness to the gospel (3:21; cf. 1:17).
We have reason, then, to be thankful that the gospel of God has a double attestation, namely the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New. Both bear witness to Jesus Christ, and this is what Paul comes to next.
- The substance of the gospel is Jesus Christ
If we bring verses 1 and 3 together, by omitting the parenthesis of verse 2, we are left with the statement that Paul was set apart for the gospel of God regarding his Son. For the gospel of God is ‘the gospel of his Son’ (9). God’s good news is about Jesus. As Luther put it in his gloss on this verse: ‘Here the door is thrown open wide for the understanding of Holy Scripture, that is, that everything must be understood in relation to Christ.’ Calvin writes similarly that ‘the whole gospel is contained in Christ’. Therefore, ‘to move even a step from Christ means to withdraw oneself from the gospel’.19
Paul now describes him by two contrasting clauses: who as to his human nature was a descendant of David (3), and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (4). Here are references, direct or indirect, to the birth (descended from David), death (presupposed by his resurrection), resurrection from the dead, and reign (on David’s throne) of Jesus Christ. So neatly and carefully constructed is the parallelism that many scholars have guessed that Paul is making use of a fragment from an early creed. If so, he now gives it his apostolic endorsement. It expresses an antithesis between two titles (seed of David and Son of God), between two verbs (he ‘became’ or ‘was born’ David’s descendant, but was declared or ‘appointed’ God’s Son), and between two qualifying clauses (kata sarka, ‘according to flesh’, and kata pneuma hagiōsynēs, literally, ‘according to spirit of holiness’).
First, the two titles. ‘Son of David’ was a universally recognized messianic title. So was ‘Son of God’, based particularly on Psalm 2:7. The way Jesus himself understood it, however, as seen both in his personal approach to God as ‘Abba, Father’ and in referring to himself absolutely as ‘the Son’, already indicates that the designation is divine, not merely messianic. Paul evidently used it thus (not only in 1:3–4 and 9, but also e.g. in 5:10 and 8:3, 32). The two titles together speak, therefore, of his humanity and his deity.
Of the two verbs, the first causes little difficulty. Although it means no more than ‘became’, it evidently refers to Jesus’ descent from David by birth (and maybe by adoption too, since Joseph acknowledged him as his son). The second verb, however, raises a problem. The translation declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead is readily intelligible. But the trouble is that horizō does not really (or usually) mean ‘declare’. It is properly rendered ‘appoint’, as when God ‘appointed’ Jesus the judge of the world. Yet the New Testament does not teach that Jesus was appointed, established or installed Son of God at or by the resurrection, since he has been the Son of God eternally. This leads to the suggestion that the words ‘in power’ should be attached to the noun ‘Son of God’ rather than to the verb ‘appoint’. In this case Paul is affirming that Jesus was ‘appointed Son-of-God-in-power’23 or even ‘declared to be the powerful Son of God’ (BAGD). Nygren captures the antithesis well by writing: ‘So the resurrection is the turning point in the existence of the Son of God. Before that he was the Son of God in weakness and lowliness. Through the resurrection he becomes the Son of God in power.’
The third contrast is in the two qualifying clauses ‘according to flesh’ and ‘according to spirit of holiness’. Although ‘flesh’ has a variety of meanings for Paul, here it evidently refers to Jesus’ human nature or physical descent, though perhaps with an undertone of its weakness or vulnerability over against the power implicit in his resurrection and deity. Some commentators then insist that, in order to preserve the parallelism, ‘according to spirit of holiness’ must be translated ‘according to his divine nature’ or at least ‘according to his holy human spirit’. But ‘Spirit of holiness’ is not at all an obvious reference to Jesus’ divine nature. Moreover, it was not only a part of him, whether his divine nature or his human spirit, which was raised from the dead or appointed Son-of-God-in-power by the resurrection. On the contrary, it was the whole Jesus Christ, body and spirit, human and divine.
Other commentators point out that ‘Spirit of holiness’ was a natural Hebraism for the Holy Spirit, and that there were obvious links between the Holy Spirit and the resurrection, both because he is ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead’ and—more important—because it was the risen and exalted Christ who demonstrated his power and authority by pouring out the Spirit,26 and who thus inaugurated the new era, which is the age of the Spirit.
It seems then that the two expressions ‘according to the flesh’ and ‘according to the Spirit’ refer not to the two natures of Jesus Christ (human and divine), but to the two stages of his ministry, pre-resurrection and post-resurrection, the first frail and the second powerful through the outpoured Spirit. So here is a balanced statement of both the humiliation and the exaltation, the weakness and the power of God’s Son, his human descent traced to David, his divine sonship-in-power established by the resurrection and gift of the Spirit. Moreover, this unique person, seed of David and Son of God, weak and powerful, incarnate and exalted, is Jesus (a human, historical figure), Christ (the Messiah of Old Testament Scripture), our Lord, who owns and rules our lives. Perhaps we could add that Jesus’ two titles, ‘the Christ’ and ‘the Lord’, will have specially appealed to Jewish and Gentile Christians respectively.
- The scope of the gospel is all the nations
Paul now comes back from his description of the gospel to his own apostleship and writes: Through him (sc. the risen Christ) and for his name’s sake (a phrase to which I will return), we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith (5). It is unlikely that by using the plural ‘we’, Paul is wanting to associate the other apostles with him, since he nowhere mentions them in this letter. Probably it is an editorial ‘we’, or the ‘we’ of apostolic authority, by which in reality he was referring to himself. What then did he ‘receive’ from God through Christ? He calls it grace and apostleship, which in the context seems to mean ‘the undeserved privilege of being an apostle’. For Paul always attributed his apostleship to God’s gracious decision and appointment.
As Paul goes on to state the purpose of his apostleship, he discloses further aspects of the gospel. He defines its scope as all the Gentiles. This seems to imply that the Christians in Rome were predominantly Gentile, since he specifically mentions them: And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (6). Yet Paul will shortly describe the gospel as ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (1:16). What he is affirming is that the gospel is for everybody; its scope is universal. He himself was a patriotic Jew, who retained his love for his people and longed passionately for their salvation (9:1f.; 10:1). At the same time, he had been called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. We too, if we are to be committed to world mission, will have to be liberated from all pride of race, nation, tribe, caste and class, and acknowledge that God’s gospel is for everybody, without exception and without distinction. This is a major theme of Romans.
- The purpose of the gospel is the obedience of faith
Literally, Paul writes that he has received his apostleship ‘unto obedience of faith among all the nations’. So ‘obedience of faith’ is his definition of the response which the gospel demands. It is a particularly notable expression, coming as it does at the beginning and the end of Romans (see 16:26), since it is in Romans that Paul insists more strongly than anywhere else that justification is ‘through faith alone’. Yet here he apparently writes that it is not by faith alone, but by ‘obedience of faith’. Has he lost his bearings? Does the apostle now contradict himself? No, we must give him credit for consistency of thought.
Three main explanations of the phrase are offered. The first is that it means ‘obedience to the faith’, taking ‘faith’ here as a body of belief. And certainly this is a New Testament expression. Further, the apostles do refer to conversion in terms of obedience to truth or doctrine.30 But when ‘faith’ has this meaning, one would expect the definite article to be in place (‘the faith’), whereas the whole context of Romans really demands a reference here to ‘faith’ (as in 8, 16–17).
The second possibility is that this is a genitive of ‘equivalence’, and that the expression should be translated ‘the obedience which consists of faith’. As John Murray puts it, ‘the faith which the apostleship was intended to promote was not an evanescent act of emotion but the commitment of wholehearted devotion to Christ and to the truth of his gospel’. And yet, although faith and obedience do always belong together, they are not synonymous, and the New Testament usually maintains a distinction between them.
The third option is that the genitive is one of source or origin. So niv renders it the obedience that comes from faith, which immediately reminds one of Abraham who ‘by faith … obeyed’. At the same time we note that this is the obedience of faith, not the obedience of law. Perhaps, in fact, the second and third options do not exclude each other. For the proper response to the gospel is faith, indeed faith alone. Yet a true and living faith in Jesus Christ both includes within itself an element of submission (cf. 10:3), especially because its object is ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ (4) or ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (7), and leads inevitably into a lifetime of obedience. That is why the response Paul looked for was a total, unreserved commitment to Jesus Christ, which he called ‘the obedience of faith’. This is our answer to those who argue that it is possible to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour without surrendering to him as Lord. It is not. Certainly the Roman Christians had believed and obeyed, for Paul describes them as being among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (6).
- The goal of the gospel is the honour of Christ’s name
The words for his name’s sake, which niv places at the beginning of verse 5, actually come at the end of the Greek sentence and so form something of a climax. Why did Paul desire to bring the nations to the obedience of faith? It was for the sake of the glory and honour of Christ’s name. For God had ‘exalted him to the highest place’ and had given him ‘the name that is above every name’, in order that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’. If, therefore, God desires every knee to bow to Jesus and every tongue to confess him, so should we. We should be ‘jealous’ (as Scripture sometimes puts it) for the honour of his name—troubled when it remains unknown, hurt when it is ignored, indignant when it is blasphemed, and all the time anxious and determined that it shall be given the honour and glory which are due to it. The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God, verse 18), but rather zeal—burning and passionate zeal—for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Some evangelism, to be sure, is no better than a thinly disguised form of imperialism, whenever our real ambition is for the honour of our nation, church, organization, or ourselves. Only one imperialism is Christian, however, and that is concern for His Imperial Majesty Jesus Christ, and for the glory of his empire or kingdom. The earliest Christians, John tells us, went out ‘for the sake of the Name’. He does not even specify to which name he is referring. But we know. And Paul tells us. It is the incomparable name of Jesus. Before this supreme goal of the Christian mission, all unworthy motives wither and die.
To sum up, here are six fundamental truths about the gospel. Its origin is God the Father and its substance Jesus Christ his Son. Its attestation is Old Testament Scripture and its scope all the nations. Our immediate purpose in proclaiming it is to bring people to the obedience of faith, but our ultimate goal is the greater glory of the name of Jesus Christ. Or, to simplify these truths by the use of six prepositions, we can say that the good news is the gospel of God, about Christ, according to Scripture, for the nations, unto the obedience of faith, and for the sake of the Name.
Paul: Called by God (1:1–6)
SUPPORTING IDEA: Truth is validated by its source.
Tony Campolo tells the story of a friend who discovered his true calling in life. He had been a college English teacher, but suddenly quit his position—to become a mailman. After hearing the man’s reasons for resigning from teaching to become a mailman, Campolo tried to encourage him with the old Protestant work ethic: “Charlie, if you’re going to be a mailman, then be the best mailman in the world!” To which his friend replied, “I’m a lousy mailman, Tony. I’m the last one to get back to the post office every day, and besides, I can’t sleep at night.” When he asked for an explanation, here is what Campolo heard: “There are so many lonely people on my route who never had anyone visit them until I became their mailman. Have you ever tried to sleep after drinking fifteen cups of coffee in one day?” (Hughes, Stories, pp. 337–339). Tony Campolo reached an important conclusion about his friend Charlie: “He was alive with the excitement that comes to a person doing something meaningful with his life.”
There is nothing so debilitating as life without purpose. Conversely, there is nothing so energizing as life filled with purpose. A life purpose will bring focus and drive to anyone, be they Christian or non-Christian. And it does not even have to be a particularly spiritual purpose. But if a mundane purpose can empower an ordinary person, think what a divine purpose could do in the life of one who is linked to the eternal purposes of God! Outside of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the apostle Paul is perhaps the best example we have of a life transformed and empowered by living out a divinely-ordained life purpose.
1:1. The apostle Paul began his letter with an expanded introduction. Because his future mission to Spain and beyond involved the church at Rome, and because the believers there had never met Paul, he made extra efforts to validate himself in their sight. He wanted them to know, as he wanted the Galatians to know several years prior (Gal. 1:1, 10–12), that what they were about to read in his letter was not his own invention. His letter to them was part of a divine mission, and what he wrote, he wrote for God.
The common form of a letter introduction in Paul’s day was “X to Y, greetings …” Paul followed this pattern with only slight variation in most of his letters, but here the “to” comes in verse 7. Paul takes six verses to identify himself and establish his credentials and mission. In fact, it can be said that Romans 1:7–16:27 is simply an explication of Romans 1:1–6. In these initial six verses Paul summarizes who he is and what he does: a servant of Christ who calls people from the nations of the world to come to faith in Christ.
“Easy for Paul to say,” we think to ourselves. “He was an apostle. He had been knocked flat on the ground after being accosted by Christ on the Damascus Road, being blinded in the process. He was smart; he was goal-oriented; he was committed; he was single without a family; he was …” and on and on. Our reasonings somehow make us think that apostles are supposed to live simply-defined lives (with the obvious implication being that it is okay if we do not!). Granted, all those things are true of Paul, but it is not those things to which we attribute the simplicity of his self-definition and identity. In fact, when Paul was saved by Christ, he was the same thing that the Romans are now to Paul, and that you and those you teach are now as well: potential partners in the gospel.
Remember, Paul was the enemy of Christ when he was saved, meaning he was only a potential partner in the gospel. He became a partner, a colaborer with Christ, through obedience—the same “obedience that comes from faith” (v. 5) to which he is calling the Romans and all who would read his letter, including us.
Paul was single-minded (Jas. 1:7–8) and uncluttered (Heb. 12:1–2)—characteristics which are to be found in every believer. Therefore, the potential exists for our identity to be the same as Paul’s: servants of Christ committed to calling the nations of the earth to faith in Christ. If that is not our true identity now, perhaps we will be closer to it as we study Paul’s great epistle to the Romans. The church has, after all, inherited the Great Commission which Christ entrusted to the original disciples (Matt. 28:18–20) and is presently under obligation (see Rom. 1:14) to fulfill it.
For all the theology and logic and reason and profundity that is rightfully attributed to the apostle Paul—and which the church commendably imitates—it must be remembered that it all served one purpose in his life: to fulfill the mission he had been given to take the gospel to the nations of the world. If there is a lesson for the church in Romans, it is that theology serves missions. If it did in the life of the greatest apostle, and the One who sent him on his mission, surely it must in our lives as well.
Three things characterized Paul: he was a servant, he was called to be an apostle, and he was set apart for the gospel. Perhaps the most radical evidence of the transforming power of the grace of God in Paul’s life was what happened to his will. The transformation was subtle and therefore easy to miss—so subtle that many in the leadership of the contemporary church may have missed it. Paul was not changed from an active to a passive person; if anything, he was perhaps more active and goal-oriented after his conversion than before. The difference is that he submitted his activity to one whom he now knew personally and loved. He willingly subjected himself to the plans and purposes of a lord who was his master. He lived only to do the will of God (cf. the same perspective in the life of Christ as highlighted in John’s Gospel: 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:26; 9:4; 10:37–38; 12:49–50; 14:31; 15:10; 17:4).
Servant here is the familiar doulos, the word in the vernacular for “slave.” Its background is in the Old Testament provision for a servant voluntarily choosing to remain with a master after a required period of servitude was completed (Exod. 21:5–6; Deut. 15:12–17; see Ps. 40:6–8 and the NIV’s rendering of “pierced” in v. 6 as a possible reference to King David’s self-positioning of himself as God’s bondservant). The owner pierced the ear of his voluntary servant with an awl; such a mark identified him forever as belonging to the master.
The words of a hypothetical servant to his master in Deuteronomy 15:16—“I do not want to leave you because I love you and your family and am well off with you” (author’s translation)—have stunning ramifications for the one today who would call himself a servant of God. Paul surely understood the implications, but do we? Can every believer, but especially those who teach and lead as did Paul (Jas. 3:1), say with integrity that we do not want to leave? That we love God and the family of God? That we are better off with him—regardless of the trials and problems that attend us—than we would be anywhere else in the world? For how many is Christian “service” a vocation rather than a voluntary profession of loyal love?
Note also how Paul used a term (servant) that would have shocked the Gentiles in the church at Rome while appealing to his Jewish brethren. Rome was filled with slaves; some have estimated that the majority of the population was in forced servitude of one sort or the other. To be a slave in the Gentile mind was to be at the bottom of the social order. Servanthood was something to escape; freedom was a goal to attain. How arresting it must have been to the Gentile believers to learn that Paul had “given up” his freedom and willingly submitted himself to Christ Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
Paul delivers a book-in-a-word on freedom when he calls himself a doulos of Christ. As Francis Schaeffer beautifully puts it, “Paul had [a slave’s] iron band around his neck, not because it had to be there but because he held it there by the fingers of his own will” (Schaeffer, Finished Work of Christ, p. 14).
To the Jewish believers, however, being a servant of God called to mind a roll call of those used by God in the Jewish nation. Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Moses (Num. 12:7–8), David (2 Sam. 7:5, 8), Isaiah (Isa. 20:3), and the prophets (Amos 3:7) were all called the servants of the Lord in the Old Testament. His Jewish readers would have noted immediately the formulary “servant of the Lord” being replaced by “servant of Jesus Christ” in Paul’s salutation. The seamless transition from Yahweh in the Old Testament to Jesus Christ in the New Testament would not have been lost on the careful Jewish reader.
But Paul’s use of the Old Testament label “servant” was not for class purposes. Paul had no interest in being a member of anyone’s Hall of Fame. But Hall of Faith? That was a different story, and one he was willing to tell. As he would tell the Ephesians, writing from a jail cell after finally making it to Rome, he became a servant in response to God’s grace (Eph. 3:7). But even that grace, and the faith to receive it, was God’s gift (Eph. 2:8–9). If anyone deserves credit it is God, for “inviting” him to become a servant.
In addition to being a servant. Paul is called to be an apostle. Paul got to be an apostle the same way the Twelve did: Jesus called him. Remember the purity and simplicity of Jesus’ calling of the disciples? “Come, follow me,” he said to Peter and Andrew, who followed him at once (Matt. 4:18–20). Then he called James and John, who likewise followed (Matt. 4:21–22). Then, a few years later, he called Paul (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–16; 26:12–18). An apostle is a “sent one” without necessary reference to the identity of the sender.
Before his conversion, Paul was sent by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to capture and incarcerate believers in Damascus (Acts 22:5). As such, he was a “sent one,” an apostle. After his conversion, he was sent by Christ to do the same thing that Christ was sent to do: release the captives and set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18–29; Gal. 1:1). By whom one is sent determines the kind of ministry one will have.
Who has sent you? Hopefully, the words of Jesus to the first twelve that he sent out have been your commission as well: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Two thousand years removed from the personal sending ministry of Jesus, it can become hard to sort out “who is sending whom” in today’s ecclesiastical world. But two questions bear asking in this regard (and are especially tied to the issue of servanthood previously mentioned by Paul).
First, as best you are able to prayerfully and humbly determine, are you where you are in ministry as a teacher as a result of the “sending” ministry of Jesus Christ? This is not asking if you are an apostle, a “sent one.” That office was apparently reserved for those who had seen and could testify to the reality of the risen Christ (Acts 1:22; Eph. 4:11). Rather, it is the principle of going and doing according to the will of Christ.
Second, is anything standing in the way of your going where you feel you are sent? Your own will perhaps; a human institution; a lack of resources; an ecclesiastical permission structure? And what about those whom you are teaching? How would they answer the same two questions? Tasks which flow from authority structures result in someone going somewhere and doing something. The church is an authority structure, we have a task to do, and therefore can assume that we are going to be sent by our Master to accomplish his mission. It is healthy to pause and take stock of where we are and what we are doing, and make sure that we are where we have been sent by Christ.
Finally, Paul’s third designation is as one who was set apart for the gospel of God. While we will explore issues concerning the gospel more in “Deeper Discoveries,” it is important here to note that Paul only views himself as set apart for one thing: the gospel. Part of this stems from his commission to preach the gospel as the apostle to the Gentiles—a formal commissioning which he alone received from the Lord. But part of it also stems from the centrality of the gospel in Paul’s life and thinking, a focus that the entire church of Jesus Christ is to embrace and maintain Matt. 28:18–20).
Did Paul have a soul mate in the person of the weeping prophet Jeremiah? God told Jeremiah that he had been set apart in his mother’s womb to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:5). Paul likewise knew that God had set him apart from birth so that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15). In ways that parallel the ministry of Jeremiah, Paul showed a no-holds-barred approach to fulfilling that for which he was set apart.
Other clues exist to the depth of the apostle’s spiritual understanding of his “set apartness.” The Greek word for “set apart,” aphorizo, has the same root (p-r-s) as the Hebrew word on which “Pharisee” is based. While the meaning of “Pharisee” is murky, the practice of Pharisees was crystal clear. They had set themselves apart, dedicated to the practice of the Law of Moses. Paul had been “in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5), yet now he finds himself set apart as a “gospelizer,” a spreader of the good news about Jesus Christ.
Because Paul mentions the gospel ten different times in this letter, we will encounter many facets of it in our study. Unfortunately, the contemporary church has so compartmentalized the gospel that it has lost touch with its full-orbed meaning. Many churches preach an evangelistic message every Sunday to an audience that is 98 percent Christian, boring the believers and turning them off to “the gospel.” Other churches never mention the gospel in their meetings since the gospel is (allegedly) for the unsaved, not for believers. As a result, believers know little of the gospel’s ongoing relevance for their lives.
Yet Paul says in Romans 1:15 that he is “eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome,” referring to the believers. We will discover from Paul the gospel’s relevance for the church. F. F. Bruce provides a clue when he defines the gospel as “the joyful proclamation of the death and resurrection of [God’s] Son, and of the consequent amnesty and liberation which men and women may enjoy through faith in him” (Bruce, p. 68). It is the first half of Bruce’s definition with which we are most familiar since it echoes Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5. In the second half resound the words of Jesus himself in Luke 4:18–19, a quote from Isaiah 61:1–2. Indeed, the good news has its roots in the Old Testament, its fruit in the New. Paul had a broad and biblical (meaning Old Testament, for him) view of the gospel, and it was this gospel for which he had been set apart.
1:2–4. Which gospel is Paul going to expand on to the Romans? He tells them clearly to make sure that they are receiving not another gospel or a new gospel or a different gospel, but the gospel gospel, the one promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The gospel is serious business for Paul. It is the heart of the message about the kingdom of God and its impact, and he wanted to make sure that the Romans had confidence in what they were about to hear. Paul was preparing to tell them more about the gospel than they had ever heard, and he wanted their full attention (plus, he did not want to be cursed; see Gal. 1:8–9).
Paul’s gospel is the gospel regarding God’s Son, born of a physical mother, making him fully human; conceived by the Spirit of holiness, making him fully divine and sinless; and raised by a father who was a descendant of David, qualifying him as well as part of the royal lineage in Israel. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul said, the Lord who by the power of God conquered death and the grave. What good news would there be in a gospel that is based on “bad news”—the news that the promised Messiah was killed, and his kingdom apparently with it? It is therefore the resurrection of Christ that puts the “good” in the good news. Be assured, Paul said—the gospel you are going to hear from me is the gospel that “I received” (1 Cor. 15:3).
1:5–6. Verse 5 is perhaps the most pregnant proposition in the entire letter, for it contains the seeds of Paul’s entire spiritual life and ministry as a believer and apostle. For his name’s sake reveals Paul’s ultimate motivation in preaching the gospel. His further references to the name of God in Romans betray the depth of his concern that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be vindicated: the name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles (Rom. 2:24, quoting Isa. 52:5; Ezek. 36:22). God wanted his saving name proclaimed throughout the earth (Rom. 9:17, quoting Exod. 9:16) because “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32). The ultimate role of the name of God in the earth is to be the object of reverence and praise (Rom. 15:9, quoting 2 Sam. 22:50; Ps. 18:49).
Why, therefore, did Paul receive grace and apostleship from God? For his name’s sake … to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. It is instructive, and perhaps convicting, to see how Paul turns to the Old Testament to explicate the gospel message. The average Christian today does admirably when he or she refers to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the benefits of which are appropriated by faith. But the understanding of God’s salvific intent for the world in the Old Testament is beyond the pale of most believers.
Remember: when Paul, and the Old Testament writers, refer to “the Gentiles” or “the nations,” they are referring to the whole world. As Jews, they were looking beyond themselves to everyone else. The Gentiles are “the world” which John 3:16 says, “God so loved” (including the Jews, of course). It is obvious at the very start of this letter that Paul has “the world” in his sights, and he wants the Roman believers to catch his vision.
Deftly, he weaves them into the universal scope of the gospel by saying that they are among the Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. Paul is building his case for going beyond Rome to Spain and the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Follow the reasoning: “I, Paul, am a voluntary bondservant of Christ, called by Christ to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. You Romans are an example of what I must do elsewhere, for you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. I belong to Christ as a slave, as do you. If we partner together in the extension of the gospel, I can be supported as I go on to Spain and you can continue to spread the gospel in Rome. A harvest is prepared among the nations and in Rome” (1:13).
Thus Paul concludes the most lengthy introduction of himself and his ministry to be found in any of his letters. If there is a sobering admonition from the life and testimony of the apostle to the Gentiles, it is this: “What is our purpose in life, and from whence comes that purpose?” Perhaps we have thought our purpose is to be the best pastor, or the most life-changing teacher, or the most careful scholar, or the most able administrator we could be. All of those are worthy means to that which is the only worthy goal: the proclaiming of the gospel among the nations for his name’s sake.
Much of the church today, especially the church in the West, does not see the vast portions of the world which do not praise the name of the Savior. Paul saw those near him (Rom. 10:1) and those who were far from him (Rom. 15:28). He will shortly explain to the Roman believers how spiritual blindness can come upon those who do not respond obediently to the grace and faith they have received. May all who teach the Word of God, and especially the Book of Romans, have eyes to see as Jesus saw (Matt. 9:36) and to respond as Paul responded.
1 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, one set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in (the) sacred Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who, according to the flesh was born of the seed of David, 4 but by virtue of the Spirit of holiness, was, by means of the resurrection from the dead, appointed to be the Son of God invested with power, namely, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom and for whose sake we received the gift of apostleship, in order to bring about obedience of faith, among all the Gentiles, 6 including also you, the called of Jesus Christ;
7 to all in Rome who are beloved of God, saints by virtue of having been called: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, one set apart for the gospel of God …
This is the beginning of Paul’s lengthiest opening salutation. For a comparison note the following list which, in an ascending series, indicates the number of words in the original for each salutation:
|28 (or 30)
As in his epistle to Titus so here in Romans Paul introduces himself as a doulos (pl. douloi in Phil. 1:1) of Christ Jesus. As the English equivalent of doulos some prefer—some even insist on—slave. It must be granted that such traits as the slave’s required absolute submission to his master and thorough dependence on him, as also the master’s ownership of and unrestricted authority over his slave, can be applied, though in a far more exalted sense, to the relation between Christ and believers. See, for example, 1 Cor. 3:23; 6:19b, 20. Nevertheless, since with the concept slave we generally associate such ideas as involuntary service, forced subjection, and (frequently) harsh treatment, many have, probably correctly, concluded that “slave” is not the best English equivalent in this context.
Besides, it should be borne in mind that Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), thoroughly at home in the Old Testament. Therefore when he calls himself “a doulos of Christ Jesus,” he is probably reflecting on passages in which Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Moses (Num. 12:7), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), David (2 Sam. 7:5), Isaiah (Isa. 20:3), etc., are called Jehovah’s servants. Is it not even possible that the figure of the wholeheartedly committed Servant described in Isa. 49:1–7; 52:13; 53:11 contributed to the meaning of the word doulos here in Rom. 1:1?
Paul presents himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. The personal name Jesus, meaning either “he will certainly save” (cf. Matt. 1:21), or “Jehovah is salvation,” which ultimately amount to the same thing, is preceded by the official designation Christ (Anointed). Of this Christ Jesus, Paul is a servant, completely surrendered to his Master.
This servant is at the same time “a called apostle.”
Now in the broadest sense an apostle (Greek apostolos, a term derived from a verb which means to send, to send away on a commission, to dispatch) is anyone who is sent or by whom a message is sent; hence, an ambassador, envoy, messenger. In classical Greek the term could refer to a naval expedition, and “an apostolic boat” was a cargo vessel. In later Judaism “apostles” were envoys sent out by the Jerusalem patriarchate to collect tribute from the Jews of the Dispersion. In the New Testament the term takes on a distinctly religious sense. In its widest meaning it refers to any gospel-messenger, anyone who is sent on a spiritual mission, anyone who in that capacity represents his Sender and brings the message of salvation. Thus used, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Apollos, Silvanus, and Timothy are all called “apostles” (Acts 14:14; 1 Cor. 4:6, 9; Phil. 2:25; 1 Thess. 2:6; cf. 1:1; and see also 1 Cor. 15:7). They all represent God’s cause, though in doing so they may also represent certain definite churches whose “apostles” they are called (cf. 2 Cor. 8:23). Thus Paul and Barnabas represent the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1, 2), and Epaphroditus is Philippi’s “apostle” (Phil. 2:25).
But in determining the meaning of the term apostle here in Rom. 1:1 it will be far better to study those passages in which it is used in its more usual sense. Occurring ten times in the Gospels, almost thirty times in Acts, more than thirty times in the Pauline epistles (including the five occurrences in the Pastorals), and eight times in the rest of the New Testament, it generally (but note important exception in Heb. 3:1 and the exceptions already indicated) refers to the Twelve and Paul.
In that fullest, deepest sense a man is an apostle for life and wherever he goes. He is clothed with the authority of the One who sent him, and that authority concerns both doctrine and life. The idea, found in much present-day religious literature, according to which an apostle has no real office, no authority, lacks scriptural support. Anyone can see this for himself by studying such passages as Matt. 16:19; 18:18; 28:18, 19 (note the connection); John 20:23; 1 Cor. 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 10:8; 1 Thess. 2:6.
Paul, then, was an apostle in the richest sense of the term. His apostleship was the same as that of the Twelve. Hence, we speak of “the Twelve and Paul.” Paul even stresses the fact that the risen Savior had appeared to him just as truly as he had appeared to Cephas (1 Cor. 15:5, 8). That same Savior had assigned to him a task so broad and universal that his entire life was henceforth to be occupied with it (Acts 26:16–18).
Yet Paul was definitely not one of the Twelve. The idea that the disciples had made a mistake when they had chosen Matthias to take the place of Judas, and that the Holy Spirit later designated Paul as the real substitute, hardly merits consideration (see Acts 1:24). But if he was not one of the Twelve yet was invested with the same office, what was the relation between him and the Twelve? The answer is probably suggested by Acts 1:8 and Gal. 2:7–9. On the basis of these passages this answer can be formulated thus: The Twelve, by recognizing Paul as having been specially called to minister to the Gentiles, were in effect carrying out through him their calling to the Gentiles.
The characteristics of full apostleship—the apostleship of the Twelve and Paul—were as follows:
In the first place, the apostles have been chosen, called, and sent forth by Christ himself. They have received their commission directly from him (John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Gal. 1:6).
Secondly, they are qualified for their tasks by Jesus, and have been ear-and-eye witnesses of his words and deeds; specifically, they are the witnesses of his resurrection (Acts 1:8, 21, 22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:12; Eph. 3:2–8; 1 John 1:1–3). Note: though Acts 1:21, 22 does not apply to Paul, the other passages do apply to him. Paul too had seen the Lord!
Thirdly, they have been endowed in a special measure with the Holy Spirit, and it is this Holy Spirit who leads them into all the truth (Matt. 10:20; John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7–14; 20:22; 1 Cor. 2:10–13; 7:40; 1 Thess. 4:8).
Fourthly, God blesses their work, confirming its value by means of signs and miracles, and giving them much fruit upon their labors (Matt. 10:1, 8; Acts 2:43; 3:2; 5:12–16; Rom. 15:18, 19; 1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 2:8).
Fifthly, their office is not restricted to a local church, neither does it extend over a short period of time; on the contrary, it is for the entire church and for life (Acts 26:16–18; 2 Tim. 4:7, 8).
Note “a called apostle.” This surely is much better than either “called an apostle” or “called to be or to become an apostle.” What the original means is that Paul was an apostle by virtue of having been effectively called by God to this office. Similarly the people he addresses were saints by virtue of having been called, “saints by (divine) vocation.” See on verse 7.
As a called apostle, Paul had been “set apart for the gospel of God.” From the beginning he had been designed by God for the proclamation of the gospel. Note especially Gal. 1:15, where the apostle expresses himself as follows, “… it pleased him who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach his gospel among the Gentiles.…”
Paul speaks of “the gospel of God” or “God’s gospel.” And it is indeed the God-spell, the spell or story that tells us what God has done to save sinners. For that very reason it is an evangel or message of good tidings. It is the glad news of salvation which God addresses to a world lost in sin. Not what we must do but what God in Christ has done for us is the most prominent part of that good news. This is clear from the manner in which the noun evangel and the related verb, to proclaim an evangel, to bring good news, are used in the Old Testament. See LXX on Ps. 40:9; 96:2; Isa. 40:9; 52:7; 61:1; and Nah. 2:1.
Here in Rom. 1 the term “gospel of God” (verse 1) has two modifiers, one in verse 2, the other in verse 3 f.
2.… which he promised beforehand through his prophets in (the) sacred Scriptures …
This passage is indeed very important. It shows us how Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wants us to regard the Old Testament. He clearly views the old and the new dispensation as belonging together. He regards (a) the Old Testament and (b) the good news of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus and his messengers, as being a unit. Speaking by and large we can say that the Old Testament contains the promises; the New Testament shows how these promises had been, were being, and were going to be fulfilled.
When Paul says “his prophets” he has reference, of course, not only to such holy men of God as Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., but also to Moses, Samuel, David, etc. To speak in language which even children can understand:
The Old is by the New explained,
The New is in the Old contained.
The New is in the Old concealed,
The Old is by the New revealed.
What Paul writes here is exactly what Jesus also proclaimed; and this not only in those well-known passages: Luke 24:25–32, 44–48, to which reference is often made in this connection, but certainly also in Luke 4:21 (in the context 4:16–30), “Today, in your very hearing, this passage of Scripture is being fulfilled,” and in Luke 22:37, “For I tell you, what has been written must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ Yes, that passage about me is reaching its fulfillment.” For more on this subject see N.T.C. on Luke, p. 977, and on Philippians, pp. 81–85.
The point to be emphasized here is that both Jesus (see John 10:35; 17:17) and Paul esteemed the Old Testament very highly. They deemed it to be sacred. When a person rejects the Old Testament, he is therefore also rejecting Jesus and Paul!
We now proceed to the second modifier of the term “the gospel of God.” It is this:
3, 4.… concerning his Son, who, according to the flesh was born of the seed of David, but by virtue of [or: in accordance with] the Spirit of holiness, was, by means of the resurrection from the dead, appointed to be the Son of God invested with power, namely, Jesus Christ our Lord …
Interpreters differ rather sharply in their explanation of these lines. My own interpretation is based, to a large extent, on my conclusions with respect to the meaning of the original. So, I invite students of the Greek to study the footnote.15
Paul confesses Jesus to be God’s Son. He means that the Savior was God’s Son entirely apart from and antecedently to his assumption of the human nature. He is the Son of God from all eternity; hence, he is God.
This confession harmonizes with what the apostle says elsewhere. Thus, in Rom. 9:5, according to what is probably the best reading and interpretation, Paul calls Jesus “over all God blest forever.” In Titus 2:13 he describes him as “our great God and Savior.” He is, in fact, “the One in whom all the fulness of the godhead is concentrated” (Col. 2:9). Cf. Phil. 2:6.
Now it is this Son who, without laying aside his divine nature, assumed the human nature. Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, in order that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). In the fulness of time he was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Throughout his earthly sojourn he was indeed “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Exactly how it was possible for the completely intact and glorious divine nature of the Savior to dwell in intimate union with his human nature, the latter burdened with the load of our guilt and all the unspeakable agonies this condition implied, surpasses human comprehension.
Our passage also informs us that with respect to this human nature Jesus “was born of the seed of David.” This was in fulfilment of the oft repeated promise. See 2 Sam. 7:12, 13, 16; Ps. 89:3, 4, 19, 24; 132:17; Isa. 11:1–5, 10; Jer. 23:5, 6; 30:9; 33:14–16; Ezek. 34:23, 24; 37:24; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:27, 32, 33, 69; 3:23–31; John 7:42; Acts 2:30; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16. Had he not been a descendant of David he could not have been the Messiah, for prophecy concerning him must be fulfilled.
His state of humiliation, however, could not last forever. As a reward for his willingness to endure it, he was, by virtue of the Spirit of holiness, appointed to be the Son of God “in power” or “invested with power.”
With respect to Christ’s “appointment” from eternity, effectuated in time, see Ps. 2:7, 8; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5. The implied exaltation took place by means of his resurrection from the dead; that is, his glorious resurrection was the first important step in his journey to glory. It was followed by Christ’s ascension, coronation, and act of pouring out the Holy Spirit.
In the expression “he was appointed to be the Son of God invested with power,” all emphasis falls on the words in italics. As has already been pointed out, from all eternity he was the Son of God, but during his period of humiliation his power, in its fullest degree, was, as it were, hidden from view. By means of his glorious resurrection his investiture with power not only was enhanced but also began to shine forth in all its glory. The expression here used reminds us of Peter’s statement, made in a very similar context, namely, “Without a shadow of doubt, therefore, let all the house of Israel be assured that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). That statement did not imply that before his resurrection Jesus was not Lord and Christ. It meant that the power, majesty, and glory of his exalted office was now beginning to shine forth in all its augmented brilliance.
Now Rom. 1:4 informs us that this manifestation of Christ’s investiture with power was brought about by “the Spirit of holiness.” This “Spirit of holiness” must not be identified with the spiritual over against the physical element in Christ’s human nature, or with his divine as contrasted with his human nature, but with the Holy Spirit, the third person in the divine Trinity.
But though the third person is distinct from the second, the two, the Holy Spirit and Christ, are most intimately related. Says Dr. H. Bavinck (my translation from the Dutch):
“To be sure, the Spirit of holiness was already dwelling in Christ before his resurrection; in fact, from the moment of his conception, for he was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), received him without measure (John 3:34) … But this glory which Christ possessed inwardly, was not able to reveal itself outwardly. He was flesh, and because of the weakness of the flesh he was put to death on the cross (2 Cor. 13:4). But in death he laid aside this weakness, and severed every connection with sin and death. God, who, for our sake, delivered up to death his own Son, also raised him from death, through his Spirit, who, as Spirit of holiness, dwells in Christ and in all believers (Rom. 8:11). He raised him in order that from that moment on he would no longer live in the weakness of the flesh but in the power of the Spirit.”
It was because of this great power that the exalted divine-and-human Savior from his heavenly throne poured out the Spirit upon his church, imparting strength, conviction, courage, and illumination to those who previously had been very weak. Also it was this energy that enabled him to bring about conversions by the thousands, so that even according to the testimony of enemies “the world was being turned upside down” (Acts 17:6). Moreover, it was as a result of the exertion of this mighty influence that the barrier between Jew and Gentile, a wall so formidable that its removal must have seemed impossible, was actually broken down. And it was on account of this force that the glorious gospel of the risen and exalted Savior began to penetrate every sphere of life and is still doing this today.
The impartation of life is generally ascribed to the Holy Spirit:
Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound,
The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground;
To God ascribe glory and wisdom and might,
Let God in his creatures forever delight.
See Ps. 104:30, 31
If, then, the impartation of life is ascribed to the Holy Spirit, is it not logical that here in Rom. 1:4 the renewal of life—Christ’s resurrection—is also ascribed to him?
Paul concludes this summary of names of the One who is the heart and center of “the gospel of God” (verse 1) by adding, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” This meaningful title shows what the One who is being described means to the apostle; in fact, to the church in general, and to that of Rome in particular. Note “God’s Son” (verses 3, 4a) “… our Lord” (verse 4b). Observe also the combination of the personal name Jesus=Savior with the official name Christ=Anointed One. Adoration: Lord (Owner, Ruler, Provider) is placed side by side with Appropriation: our Lord. It is by means of “Jesus Christ our Lord” that the true gospel reaches its climax. Apart from him salvation is impossible. With him as our joyfully recognized Sovereign, the object of our trust and love, damnation is unthinkable. See Rom. 8:1.
Having already introduced himself in verse 1, Paul now adds some more information about himself; that is, about himself in relation to “Jesus Christ our Lord” from whom he had received his important commission:
5.… through whom and for whose sake we received the gift of apostleship, in order to bring about obedience of faith, among all the Gentiles …
Literally the passage reads, “through whom and for whose sake we received grace and apostleship.” Many translators have retained these words, in that order, in their versions. So interpreted, Paul would be saying that he had received two things: (a) grace; that is, God’s unmerited favor, imparting salvation, plus (b) apostleship. This interpretation may be correct.
Personally I favor the other view, namely, that what we have here in verse 5 is an instance of hendiadys (the “one by means of two” figure of speech; that is: one concept is expressed by two nouns connected by and), and that the meaning is, accordingly, “the gift (or grace) of apostleship.” I favor this interpretation and translation for the following reasons:
- In the present context it is hard to see why Paul would have to emphasize that he is a man saved by grace.
- Also in Rom. 15:15, 16 the “grace” mentioned is Paul’s ministry, his apostolic office. And cf. 12:6.
When Paul says, “We received,” he is in all probability using the literary or writer’s plural. If so, he is referring to himself, not also to others.
When did Paul receive from “Jesus Christ our Lord” the gift of apostleship, with the implied mandate to exercise it? Many passages occur to the mind; for example: Acts 9:1–19 (note especially verse 15); 18:9, 10; 22:6–21; 26:12–18; Rom. 15:15, 16. Among all of them there are two that deserve more than passing notice:
In the first, Jesus is represented as addressing Paul in connection with the unforgettable vision the latter received while as a relentless persecutor he was on his way to Damascus. In answer to Paul’s question, “Who art thou, Lord?” the Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But arise and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you (to be) a servant and a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes in order that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, so as to receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:15b–18).
In the second, which reports what happened shortly afterward, while Paul was praying in the temple, it is stated that he fell into a trance and heard the Lord saying to him, “Depart, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21).
In both of these passages the apostle is described as a man who received his apostolic mission from Jesus Christ. See also N.T.C. on Gal. 1:1.
Note “through whom and for whose sake.” This means that not only is it true that Paul received his apostleship from or through Christ, but it is also a fact that he received it in order that by means of it he might proclaim the name of Christ and promote his cause.
The purpose for which Paul was appointed was to bring about obedience of faith. Such obedience is based on faith and springs from faith. In fact, so very closely are faith and obedience connected that they may be compared to inseparable identical twins. When you see the one you see the other. A person cannot have genuine faith without having obedience, nor vice versa.
A striking illustration of this fact is offered by the apostle himself in two synonymous passages, the one concerning faith; the other, concerning obedience:
Rom. 1:8, “… I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the entire world.”
Rom. 16:19, “For the fame of your obedience has reached everyone.” It is by means of obedience of faith that a person embraces Christ.
After Paul has written “… in order to bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles,” he continues:
6.… including also you, the called of Jesus Christ …
It is clear that Paul, who in verses 1–5 has been speaking not only about himself and his apostolic office but also about the Christ-centered gospel, now turns specifically to those whom he is addressing. To be sure, they had never been absent from his mind. But he now mentions them as those who were definitely included in the number of people for whom the gospel was intended.
Speaking by and large, the apostle rejoices in being able to state that Rome’s membership had not only been invited to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but had also, by God’s sovereign grace, responded favorably to the invitation. Paul is speaking therefore about what is often termed “the effectual call” (Rom. 8:28, 30; 9:24 1 Cor. 1:9, 24, 26, etc.).
Implied in these words is also the fact that Paul is deeply conscious of the fact that he has a definite, a very special, right to address these people. Is he not “the apostle (par excellence) to the Gentiles”? In addition to the immediately preceding verse (verse 5) see also Rom. 11:13; 15:16; Gal. 2:8, 9; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 2:7. And is not the most natural implication of the words “among all the Gentiles, including also you” (or “among whom you are also”) this, that those whom Paul here addresses were mostly Gentiles by race, and had at one time been Gentiles also by religion? See Introduction, Section IV.
When Paul names those he is addressing “the called of Jesus Christ,” he means “those who by virtue of having been effectively called belong to Jesus Christ, are his people.” They are even now his very own, having been given to him by the Father. See John 10:27, 28. Cf. John 17:6, 9, 24; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9. See also 1 Cor. 6:19, 20. This inclusion in God’s family is also implied in the words:
7.… to all in Rome who are beloved of God, saints by virtue of having been called: …
By means of the phrase “to all in Rome who are beloved of God” Paul continues what he had begun in verse 6, namely, to describe those whom he addresses. This time he includes in his description the name of the place where they are living, Rome. For the reason why we believe that the words “in Rome” are a genuine part of the text see Introduction VI, under As to 1, p. 27.
As to the expression “beloved of God” (or “loved by God”), a study of the book of Romans in its entirety reveals that for Paul these words indicate not only that God now loves the believers in Rome but also that he had loved them from all eternity (cf. Jer. 31:3), and would never stop loving them (Rom. 8:31–39). We know that this is the apostle’s view, for, as he sees it, God’s concern for his children is an unbreakable chain (Rom. 8:29, 30). It reaches from one eternity to the next. It is a love that precedes, accompanies, and follows their love for God. And, of course, even men’s love for God must not be viewed as an independent entity. Rather, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The same idea is certainly implied in Paul’s teaching on this subject. See Rom. 5:5–11; 8:28.
Paul adds, “saints by virtue of having been called.”
Though interpreters have spared no efforts in calling attention to this meaning of the original, translators continue to offer: “called to be saints.” But that is not what Paul says. He is telling the Roman Christians what, by grace, they are even now. He is stating that something has happened to them: they have been effectively called. By this inner or effective call is meant that operation of the Holy Spirit whereby he so applies the gospel to the minds and hearts of sinners that they become aware of their guilt, begin to understand their need of Jesus Christ, and embrace him as their Lord and Savior. Thus these people become saints, that is, people who have been “set apart” in order to live lives to the glory of the Triune God as revealed in Christ Jesus.
As mentioned earlier, Paul had been thoroughly drilled in the contents of what we today call the Old Testament. He knew that during the old dispensation there were certain places, objects, and people that had been “set apart” and “consecrated” for the service of God; for example, the holy place (1 Kings 8:10) and the holy of holies (Exod. 26:33), the tithe of the land (Lev. 27:30), the priests (Lev. 21:6, 7), and even the Israelites as a whole, viewed in distinction from the other nations (Exod. 19:6; Lev. 20:26; Deut. 7:6; Dan. 7:22). It is this idea which in the New Testament is applied to Christians generally. They are the “elect race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people for God’s own possession” of the new dispensation, chosen to declare God’s praises (1 Peter 2:9). A saint, then, is a person whose guilt has been blotted out on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and who, consequently, by means of the power of the indwelling Spirit, strives to live to God’s glory. He is one who has been set apart and consecrated for service.
Paul, then, is stating that the addressees are such people. They are saints by virtue of having been effectively called.
But now, having rejected the rendering “called to be saints,” because it is wrong, it is but fair to point out that this very translation, though far from satisfactory, does contain one element of value. It points to the fact that a person who, by God’s sovereign grace and power, has become a saint cannot rest on his laurels. On the contrary, now being a saint, he should endeavor day after day after day to live as a saint should live. This is true all the more because as long as he is still on this earth, he remains a sinner. He should do his utmost—not by his own power, for he has none, but by the power of the Holy Spirit—to be “holy and without blemish before him” (Eph. 1:4). If he is indeed a saint, he will also actually do this. Thus we see that even a faulty translation of Rom. 1:7 can point in the right direction.
Paul has called these Romans “the called of Jesus Christ, beloved of God, saints.” “Why,” we may well ask, “is he so generous in his praise for these people and so eager to assure them that he loves them … and even better, that God loves them?” Probably because he knows, and they know, that he, Paul, has not founded this church. So he is, as it were, saying, “I love you as sincerely and deeply as if I myself had been the founder of your church. And I consider myself your apostle; yes, your very own.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the form of the salutation found in most of Paul’s epistles. In Colossians and in I Thessalonians there is an abbreviation; in 1 and 2 Timothy there is an expansion, the word “mercy” having been inserted between “grace” and “peace.” In Titus the word “our Savior” has been substituted for “our Lord.”
What we see here in Romans, etc., is that the Greek greeting form has been combined with the Jewish form. The Greek says Chaire! = “Joy to you!” The Jew says Shalom! = “Peace!” Not only, however, have these two greetings been joined by Paul but they have at the same time been transformed into one distinctively Christian salutation. Note, in this connection, that chaire has been changed into charis = grace.
Grace, as here used, is God’s spontaneous, unmerited favor in action, his freely bestowed lovingkindness in operation, bestowing salvation upon guilt-laden sinners who turn to him for refuge. It is, as it were, the rainbow round about the very throne out of which proceed flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder (Rev. 4:3, 5). We think of the Judge who not only remits the penalty but also cancels the guilt of the offender and even adopts him as his own son.
Grace brings peace. The latter is both a state, that of reconciliation with God, and a condition, the inner conviction that consequently all is well. It is the great blessing which Christ by his atoning sacrifice bestowed upon the church (John 14:27), and it surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7). It is not the reflection of an unclouded sky in the tranquil waters of a picturesque lake, but rather the cleft of the rock in which the Lord hides his children when the storm is raging (think of the theme of Zephaniah’s prophecy); or, to change the figure somewhat but with retention of the main thought, it is the hiding place under the wings, to which the hen gathers her brood, so that the little chicks are safe while the storm bursts loose in all its fury upon herself.
Now this grace and this peace have their origin in God our (precious word of appropriation and inclusion!) Father, and have been merited for believers by him who is the great Master-Owner-Conqueror (“Lord”), Savior (“Jesus”), and Office-Bearer (“Christ”), and who, because of his threefold anointing “is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25).
For further details about certain aspects of Paul’s opening salutations see N.T.C. on I and 2 Thessalonians, pp. 37–45; on Philippians, pp. 43–49; and on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, pp. 49–56; 339–344.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 39–51). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 35–38). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (pp. 46–54). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.