Category Archives: Biblical Commentary

Romans 1:19-20 Commentary Series

God’s Revelation

because that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (1:19–20)

First of all God is justified in His wrath against sinners because of the revelation of Himself to all mankind. Romans 1:18–2:16 pertains especially to Gentiles, who did not have the benefit of God’s revealed Word as did Israel. Israel, of course, was doubly guilty, because she not only rejected God’s natural, universal revelation of Himself in creation and conscience but even rejected His unique written revelation through Scripture.

the gift of revelation

because that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them. (1:19)

Paul’s point here is that, even apart from His written revelation, that which is known about God is evident within even pagan Gentiles, for God made it evident to them. The Lord testifies through Paul that His outward, visible manifestation of Himself is universally known by man. It is evident within them as well as without them. All men have evidence of God, and what their physical senses can perceive of Him their inner senses can understand to some extent. The Philistines both saw and acknowledged God’s power, as did the Canaanites, the Egyptians, and every other people who have lived on earth. The rebels who built the tower of Babel both saw and acknowledged God’s greatness, as did the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. All men know something and understand something of the reality and the truth of God. They are responsible for a proper response to that revelation. Any wrong response is “inexcusable.”

Theologian Augustus Strong wrote, “The Scriptures … both assume and declare that the knowledge that God is, is universal (Rom. 1:19–21, 28, 32; 2:15). God has inlaid the evidence of [that] fundamental truth in the very nature of man, so that nowhere is He without a witness” (Systematic Theology [Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1979 reprint], p. 68). Unregenerate man has “no help and [is] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), not because he has no knowledge of God but because he naturally rebels against the knowledge of God that he has. As Paul has already attested (Rom. 1:18), sinful mankind naturally suppresses God’s truth with his own unrighteousness.

No one can find God on his own initiative or by his own wisdom or searching. Yet God has never left man to his own initiative and understanding but has graciously provided abundant evidence of Himself. He has sovereignly and universally made Himself evident to men. No person, therefore, can plead ignorance of God, because, entirely apart from Scripture, God has always revealed Himself and continues to reveal Himself to man. God is perfectly just and therefore could not rightly condemn those who are totally ignorant of Him. As Paul unequivocally asserts here, no person can rightly claim ignorance of God, and therefore no person can rightly claim that God’s wrath against him is unjust. Every person is accountable for the revelation of God that may lead one to salvation.

Tertullian, the prominent early church Father, said that it was not the pen of Moses that initiated the knowledge of the Creator. The vast majority of mankind, though they had never heard the name of Moses—to say nothing of his book—know the God of Moses nonetheless (cf. An Answer to the Jews, chap. 2).

A disease left Helen Keller as a very young girl without sight, hearing, and speech. Through Anne Sullivan’s tireless and self-less efforts, Helen finally learned to communicate through touch and even learned to talk. When Miss Sullivan first tried to tell Helen about God, the girl’s response was that she already knew about Him—just didn’t know His name (Helen Keller, The Story of My Life [New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905], pp. 368–74).

That which is known could be rendered “that which is knowable.” Obviously, finite man cannot know everything about God even with the perfect revelation of Scripture. Paul’s point is that that which is capable of being known about God apart from special revelation is indeed known by fallen mankind. The characteristics of God that are reflected in His creation give unmistakable testimony to Him.

While ministering in Lystra, Paul told his Gentile audience about the God “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” He went on to explain that “in the generations gone by [God] permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15–17). The very goodness of life testifies to the goodness of the God who provides it.

On his next journey Paul told the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill at Athens,

While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist. (Acts 17:23–28)

In other words, God controls the nations, their boundaries, and their destinies. He controls time, the seasons, and every other aspect both of heaven and earth. Even more remarkable than that, Paul says, because God has graciously chosen to make Himself known and approachable, “He is not far from each one of us.”

John speaks of Jesus Christ as “the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9). He was not speaking about the saving knowledge of God, which comes only through faith, but of the intellectual knowledge of God, which comes to every human being through God’s self-manifestation in His creation. Every person has a witness of God, and therefore every person is accountable to follow the opportunity to respond to Him in faith.

the content of revelation

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (1:20)

Next Paul specifies the content of the revelation of Himself that God makes known to all mankind. Since the creation of the world, he declares, God has made His invisible attributes visible. The particular attributes that man can perceive in part through his natural senses are God’s eternal power and His divine nature. God’s eternal power refers to His never-failing omnipotence, which is reflected in the awesome creation which that power both brought into being and sustains. God’s divine nature of kindness and graciousness is reflected, as Paul told the Lystrans, in the “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

The noted theologian Charles Hodge testified, “God therefore has never left himself without a witness. His existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship him as the true and only God” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983 reprint], p. 37).

God’s natural revelation of Himself is not obscure or selective, observable only by a few perceptive souls who are specially gifted. His revelation of Himself through creation can be clearly seen by everyone, being understood through what has been made.

Even in the most ancient of times, long before the telescope and microscope were invented, the greatness of God was evident both in the vastness and in the tiny intricacies of nature. Men could look at the stars and discover the fixed order of their orbits. They could observe a small seed reproduce itself into a giant tree, exactly like the one from which it came. They could see the marvelous cycles of the seasons, the rain, and the snow. They witnessed the marvel of human birth and the glory of the sunrise and sunset. Even without the special revelation David had, they could see that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps. 19:1).

Some birds are able to navigate by the stars. Even if hatched and raised in a windowless building, if shown an artificial sky, they immediately are able to orient themselves to the proper place to which to migrate. The archerfish is able to fire drops of water with amazing force and accuracy, knocking insects out of the air. The bombardier beetle separately produces two different chemicals, which, when released and combined, explode in the face of an enemy. Yet the explosion never occurs prematurely and never harms the beetle itself. No wonder David declared that “power belongs to God” (Ps. 62:11) and that Asaph (Ps. 79:11) and Nahum (1:3) spoke of the greatness of His power.

Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has said:

Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world.… The essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same. Consider the enormousness of the problem: Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? And science cannot answer these questions.…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers [New York: Norton, 1978], pp. 14, 114, 116)

With giant telescopes such as the 200 inch-diameter instrument at Mount Palomar in California astronomers can observe objects 4 billion light years away, a distance of more than 25 septillion miles! (James Reid, God, the Atom, and the Universe [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968).

At any given time, there are an average of 1,800 storms in operation in the world. The energy needed to generate those storms amounts to the incredible figure of 1,300,000,000 horsepower. By comparison, a large earth-moving machine has 420 horsepower and requires a hundred gallons of fuel a day to operate. Just one of those storms, producing a rain of four inches over an area of ten thousand square miles, would require energy equivalent to the burning of 640,000,000 tons of coal to evaporate enough water for such a rain. And to cool those vapors and collect them in clouds would take another 800,000,000 horsepower of refrigeration working night and day for a hundred days.

Agricultural studies have determined that the average farmer in Minnesota gets 407,510 gallons of rainwater per acre per year, free of charge, of course. The state of Missouri has some 70,000 square miles and averages 38 inches of rain a year. That amount of water is equal to a lake 250 miles long, 60 miles wide, and 22 feet deep.

The U. S. Natural Museum has determined that there are at least 10 million species of insects, including some 2,500 varieties of ants. There are about 5 billion birds in the United States, among which some species are able to fly 500 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Mallard ducks can fly 60 miles an hour, eagles 100 miles an hour, and falcons can dive at speeds of 180 miles an hour.

The earth is 25,000 miles in circumference, weighs 6 septillion, 588 sextillion tons, and hangs unsupported in space. It spins at 1,000 miles per hour with absolute precision and careens through space around the sun at the speed of 1,000 miles per minute in an orbit 580 million miles long.

The head of a comet may be from 10,000 to 1,000,000 miles long, have a tail 100,000,000 miles long, and travel at a speed of 350 miles per second. If the sun’s radiated energy could be converted into horsepower, it would be the equivalent of 500 million, million, billion horsepower. Each second it consumes some 4 million tons of matter. To travel at the speed of light (ca. 186,281 miles per second) across the Milky Way, the galaxy in which our solar system is located, would take 125,000 years. And our galaxy is but one of millions.

The human heart is about the size of its owner’s fist. An adult heart weighs less than half a pound, yet can do enough work in twelve hours to lift 65 tons one inch off the ground. A water molecule is composed of only three atoms. But if all the molecules in one drop of water were the size of a grain of sand, they could make a road one foot thick and a half mile wide that would stretch from Los Angeles to New York. Amazingly, however, the atom itself is largely space, its actual matter taking up only one trillionth of its volume.

Except to a mind willfully closed to the obvious, it is inconceivable that such power, intricacy, and harmony could have developed by any means but that of a Master Designer who rules the universe. It would be infinitely more reasonable to think that the separate pieces of a watch could be shaken in a bag and eventually become a dependable timepiece than to think that the world could have evolved into its present state by blind chance.

Even a pagan should be able to discern with the psalmist that surely the One who made the ear and the eye is Himself able to hear and to see (see Ps. 94:9). If we can hear, then whoever made us surely must understand hearing and seeing. If we, His creatures, can think, then surely the mind of our Creator must be able to reason.

Men are judged and sent to hell not because they do not live up to the light evidenced in the universe but because ultimately that rejection leads them to reject Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment,” Jesus said; “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8–9). But if a person lives up to the light of the revelation he has, God will provide for his hearing the gospel by some means or another. In His sovereign, predetermined grace He reaches out to sinful mankind. “As I live!” declared the Lord through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). God does not desire “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He will give His elect the privilege of hearing the gospel and will bring them to Himself. “You will seek Me and find me,” the Lord promised through Jeremiah, “when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

Because the Ethiopian eunuch was sincerely seeking God, the Holy Spirit sent Philip to witness to him. Upon hearing the gospel, he believed and was baptized (Acts 8:26–39). Because Cornelius, a Gentile centurion in the Roman army, was “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually,” God sent Peter to him to explain the gospel. “While Peter was still speaking, … the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message,” and they were “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:2, 44, 48). Because Lydia was a true worshiper of God, when she heard the gospel, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts. 16:14).[1]

Natural Revelation

Romans 1:18–20

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

No one likes to talk about the wrath of God, particularly if it is thought of in relation to ourselves. But if we have to think about it, as our study of Romans 1:18–20 obviously forces us to do, we find ourselves reacting generally in one of two ways. Either (1) we argue that wrath is somehow unworthy of God, a blotch on his character, and therefore a mistaken notion that should be abandoned at once by all right-thinking people; or (2) we reply by denying that we merit God’s wrath, that we do not deserve it.

The second reaction is the more serious of the two. So it is the one Paul tackles in the development of his argument for the need we all have of the Christian gospel.

Romans 1:18–20 contains three important concepts, which together explain why the wrath of God against men and women is justified. The first is wrath itself. It is being revealed from heaven against the ungodly, Paul says. The second is the suppression of the truth about God by human beings, a point picked up and developed more fully in verses 21–23. The third idea is God’s prior revelation of himself to those very people who suppress the truth about him. These concepts need to be studied in inverse order, however. For when they are considered in that order—revelation, suppression, and wrath—they teach that God has given a revelation of himself in nature sufficient to lead any right-thinking man or woman to seek him out and worship him, but that, instead of doing this, people suppress this revelation. They deny it so they do not have to follow where it leads them. It is because of this willful and immoral suppression of the truth about God by human beings that the wrath of God comes upon them.

Revelation of God in Nature

There has been so much debate about what theologians call “natural revelation” that it is important to begin a discussion of this subject with some important definitions and distinctions. First, a definition: natural revelation means what it sounds like, namely, the revelation of God in nature. It is sometimes called “general revelation,” because it is available to everybody. Natural revelation is distinguished from “special revelation,” which goes beyond it and is the kind of revelation we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the revelation of the Bible’s meaning to the minds of those who read it by the Holy Spirit.

When Paul talks about a knowledge of God made plain to human beings, as he does in this text, it is the general or natural revelation, not a specific scriptural revelation, that he has in mind.

The second concept that needs to be defined here is “knowledge of God.” This is necessary because we can use the words know or knowledge in different ways.

  1. Awareness. To begin on the lowest level, when we say that we know something we can be saying only that we are aware of its existence. In this sense we can say that we know where somebody lives or that we know certain things are happening somewhere in the world. This is true knowledge, but it is not extensive knowledge. It is knowledge that affects us very little. It does not involve us personally.
  2. Knowing about. Knowing about something goes a step further, because knowledge in this sense may be detailed, extensive, and important. This is the kind of knowledge a physicist would have of physics or a doctor of medical facts. To come more to the point, a theologian can have knowledge about God, a theology by which he might be called a very learned man—and still not be saved.
  3. Experience. The word know can also be used to refer to knowledge acquired by experience. To go back to the two previous categories, we could have this kind of knowledge of where a person lives if, for example, we had actually lived in his or her home ourselves. Again, a doctor could have knowledge like this if he were actually to experience the diseases he treats or undergo the operations he performs. Knowledge of a disease by having it is obviously quite different from merely having read of its causes and symptoms and how to treat the ailment.
  4. Personal. The last kind of knowledge is the highest and most important level. It is what we would call personal knowledge, the kind of knowing we can only have of God, of ourselves, or of another human being. When the Bible speaks of knowing God in a saving way, this is what it has in mind. It involves the knowledge of ourselves in our sin and of God in his holiness and grace. It involves the knowledge of what he has done for us in Christ for our salvation and an actual coming to know and love God through knowing Jesus Christ. It involves head knowledge, but it also involves heart knowledge. It expresses itself in piety, worship, and devotion. It is what Jesus was speaking of when he prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Some people grow impatient with definitions of this sort and wish that the teachers making them would just get on with explaining the Bible. But distinctions are necessary in this case, since they alone isolate the particular kind of knowledge of God available to men and women in nature for which God holds them accountable.

In the context of our text, this is not knowledge in the last of the four senses mentioned; if it were, all persons would be saved. Nor is it even (except in a very limited sense) knowledge about God or knowledge by experience. It is basically awareness. Nature reveals God is such a way that, even without the special revelation of God that we have in the Bible, all men and women are at least aware that God exists and that they should worship him. This awareness of God will not save them. But it is sufficient to condemn them if they fail to follow nature’s leading, as they could and should do, and seek out the true God so revealed.

Eternal Power and Divine Nature

The apostle is precise here as he explains what the natural revelation involves. It consists of two elements: first, “God’s eternal power” and, second, God’s “divine nature” (v. 20). The second means quite simply that there is a God. In other words, people have no excuse for being atheists. The first means that the God, whom they know to exist, is all-powerful. People know this by definition, since a god who is not all-powerful is not really God. We can express these two ideas philosophically by the term “Supreme Being.” “Being” (with a capital “B”) refers to God’s existence. “Supreme” denotes his ultimate power. What Paul is saying is that nature contains ample and entirely convincing evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. God exists, and we know it. That is his argument. Therefore, when people subsequently refuse to acknowledge and worship God (as we do), the problem is not in God or in a lack of evidence for his existence but in our own irrational and resolute determination not to know him.

I need to add several more important things at this point, and the first concerns the extensiveness of this nevertheless incomplete revelation. I have pointed out that the revelation of God in nature is the limited disclosure of God’s existence and supreme power. There is no revelation of his mercy, holiness, grace, love, or the many other things necessary for us to learn if we are to know God savingly. Still, we are not to think of this limited revelation as minimal, as if somehow its limited quality alone can excuse us. According to the Bible, this natural revelation of God, though limited, is nevertheless extensive and overwhelming in its force.

In the Old Testament the great counterpart to Romans 1:18–20 is the first half of Psalm 19 (vv. 1–6). It speaks of the revelation of God in the heavens:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language

where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,

like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens

and makes its circuit to the other;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

In these verses it is the “glory” or majesty of God that is said to be revealed in nature. But the emphasis here is on the universal nature of the revelation rather than on its content. It is heard in every human “speech” and “language.” It is known in “all the earth” and “to the ends of the world.”

Another classic Old Testament passage about natural revelation is the interrogation of Job recorded in chapters 38 and 39 of that book. God is the interrogator, and his point is that Job is far too ignorant even to question God or presume to evaluate his ways. In the context of that negative argument—“See how little you know”—God unfolds an overwhelming list of evidences for his wisdom, power, and great glory, which Job (like all people everywhere) should know and before which he should marvel:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set,

or who laid its cornerstone—

while the morning stars sang together

and all the angels shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors

when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment

and wrapped it in thick darkness,

when I fixed limits for it

and set its doors and bars in place,

when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;

here is where your proud waves halt’?”

Job 38:4–11

God’s interrogation of Job goes on in that fashion for two chapters. Then, after Job responds by a confession of his own ignorance, God launches into the same type of questioning for one chapter more. These chapters stress that God is all-powerful and all-wise, and the evidence they present for these divine attributes is nature.

Kindness in Nature

There may be one other matter to be mentioned, though I must be careful not to claim too much for it here. When Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra in Lycaonia on their first missionary journey, the people wanted to worship them because they thought they were gods as a result of a miracle they did. Paul rebuked their error and began to teach them better, in one place speaking of God’s revelation of himself in nature in these words: “God … made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:15b–17).

If these words are to be taken at their face value—and why should we not take them that way?—they say that God has also revealed his kindness in nature. Theologians call this common grace. Instead of sending us all to hell at this instant, as he has every right to do, God takes care of us in a common, general way so that most of us have food to eat, clothes to wear, and places to live. True, the evidence for common grace is not unambiguous. There are bad things in this world, too: hurricanes, terrible diseases, and so on. But generally the world is a reasonably pleasant place. So it is not only God’s glory, power, and wisdom that we see in nature, according to the Bible. We see God’s goodness or kindness as well, and this attribute especially increases our guilt when we refuse to seek God so that we may thank and worship him.

Awareness Within

The second idea I need to add here is that God’s revelation of himself in nature does not stop with the external evidence for his existence, power, wisdom, and kindness—the attributes I have mentioned—but it has what can be called an internal or subjective element as well. That is, not only has God given evidence for his existence; he has also given us the capacity to comprehend or receive it—though we refuse to do so. The text says, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them,” and “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (vv. 19–20, italics mine).

Charles Hodge writes of these verses, “It is not of a mere external revelation of which the apostle is speaking, but of that evidence of the being and perfections of God which every man has in the constitution of his own nature, and in virtue of which he is competent to apprehend the manifestation of God in his works.”

John Calvin says that we are “blind” to God’s revelation but “not so blind that we can plead ignorance without being convicted of perversity.”

Let me use an illustration. Suppose you are driving down the street and come to a sign that says, “Detour—Turn Left.” But you ignore this and drive on. It happens that there is a police officer present, who stops you and begins to write out a ticket. What excuse might you have? You might argue that you didn’t see the sign. But that would carry very little weight if the sign was well placed and in bright colors. Besides, it makes no difference. As long as you are driving the car, the responsibility for seeing the sign and obeying it is yours. What is more, you are accountable if, having ignored the sign, you recklessly race on and either harm yourself and your passengers or destroy property.

Paul’s teaching fits this illustration. He is saying, first, that there is a sign. It is God’s revelation of himself in nature. Second, you have “vision.” Although blind to much, you can nevertheless see the revelation. Therefore, if you choose to ignore it, as we all do apart from the grace of God, the disaster that follows is your own fault. Your feelings of guilt are well founded.

Let me try this again. Paul is not saying that there is enough evidence about God in nature so that the scientist, who carefully probes nature’s mysteries, can be aware of him. (Carl Sagan has done this as well as anybody, but he acknowledges no Supreme Being.) Paul is not saying that the sign is there but hidden, that we are only able to find it if we look carefully. He is saying that the sign is plain. It is a billboard. In fact, it is a world of billboards. No one, no matter how weak-minded or insignificant, can be excused for missing it.

There is enough evidence of God in a flower to lead a child as well as a scientist to worship him. There is sufficient evidence in a tree, a pebble, a grain of sand, a fingerprint, to make us glorify God and thank him. This is the way to true knowledge. But people will not do this. They reject the revelation, substitute nature itself or parts of nature for God, and thereby find their hearts increasingly darkened.

John Calvin gives this just conclusion: “But although we lack the natural ability to mount up unto the pure and clear knowledge of God, all excuse is cut off because the fault of dullness is within us. And, indeed, we are not allowed thus to pretend ignorance without our conscience itself always convicting us of both baseness and ingratitude.”

Suppressing the Truth

When Calvin speaks of baseness and ingratitude, he brings us to the second point of Paul’s argument in this section of Romans, the point that justifies and leads to God’s wrath. We have already been talking about this. It is human rejection of the revelation God has given.

Paul’s description of what people have done in regard to natural revelation is in the phrase “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). In Greek the word translated “suppress” is katechein, which means “take,” “hold,” “hold fast,” “hold back,” “keep,” “restrain,” or “repress.” In a positive sense the word can be used to mean holding to something that is good, as when Paul speaks of holding on to the word of life (cf. Phil. 2:16). In a negative sense it means wrongly to suppress something or hold it down. This is the way Paul is using it here. Thus, the newer translations of the Bible speak in Romans 1:18 of those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (nasb), “keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness” (Jerusalem Bible) or “stifle” truth (neb). Why do we do this? It is because of our wickedness, because we prefer sin to that to which the revelation of God would take us.

This leads to the matter we are going to study in the next chapter, what R. C. Sproul has called “the psychology of atheism.” It leads to an explanation of why natural revelation by itself does not work, in the sense of actually bringing us to God.

But before we turn to that topic, I need to say that if, as Paul maintains, the revelation of God in nature is fully adequate to condemn people who do not allow it to bring them to worship and serve this true God, how much more terrible and awful is the case of the vast numbers of people, particularly in our country, who have not only the natural revelation to lead them to God but also have the Bible and the proclamation of its truths in virtually every town and hamlet of our land and (by means of radio and television) at almost any hour. “Without excuse”? The people of Rome were without excuse, and they had nothing but nature. No Bible! No churches! No preachers! What about us who have everything? If we reject what God tells us, we are a thousand times more guilty.

No excuse! “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).

The Psychology of Atheism

Romans 1:18–20

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

In 1974 theologian R. C. Sproul produced a book from which I have drawn the title of this study: The Psychology of Atheism. Sproul’s book (later reissued as If There Is a God, Why Are There Atheists?) is an attempt to understand why people reject God either philosophically, becoming philosophical atheists, or practically, becoming practical atheists. (Practical atheists may say that they believe in God, but they “act as if” God does not exist.) Sproul’s answer is that atheism has nothing to do with man’s supposed ignorance of God—since all people know God, according to Romans 1—but rather with mankind’s dislike of him. People do not “know” God, because they do not want to know him.

Sproul writes:

The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural antipathy to the being of God. In a word, the nature of God (at least the Christian God) is repugnant to man and is not the focus of desire or wish projection. Man’s desire is not that Yahweh exists, but that he doesn’t.

The Sovereign God

But why are people so determined to reject God? Up to this point we have looked at three great ideas in our study of Romans 1:18–20: (1) the wrath of God, which is directed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men; (2) the suppression by human beings of the truth about God revealed in nature; and (3) the prior revelation of God’s eternal power and divine nature through what God has made. But we have seen that the historical sequence of these ideas is the reverse of the above listing. First, God has revealed himself. Second, people have rejected the truth thus revealed. Third, the wrath of God is released upon them because of this rejection.

Still, the question remains: Why do so-called rational beings react in what is clearly such an irrational manner? If the truth about God is as plainly understood as Romans 1:18–20 maintains it is, why should anyone suppress it? The answer, of course, is what I began to talk about in the previous chapter and am now to carry further in terms of Sproul’s thesis. Men and women reject God because they do not like him. They may like a god of their own imagining, a god like themselves, and therefore say that they like God. But the truth is that they do not like the God who really is.

Paul’s words for this universal dislike of God are “godlessness” and “wickedness” (v. 18). “Godlessness” means that people are opposed to God. They are not like God and do not like him. “Wickedness” refers to what people do because of this determined opposition. They reject the truth about God, thereby trying to force God away.

What is it that people do not like about God? The answer is, nearly everything. Let me show this by a look at some of the most important of God’s attributes.

The first thing men and women dislike about God is his sovereignty, his most basic attribute. For if God is not sovereign, God is not God. Sovereignty refers to rule; in the case of God, it refers to the Being who is ruler over all. Sovereignty is what David was speaking about in his great prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 29:10–13.

Praise be to you, O Lord,

God of our father Israel,

from everlasting to everlasting.

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power

and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,

for everything in heaven and earth is yours.

Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom;

you are exalted as head over all.

Wealth and honor come from you;

you are the ruler of all things.

In your hands are strength and power

to exalt and give strength to all.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,

and praise your glorious name.

God shows his sovereignty over the material order by creating it and ruling it according to his own fixed laws. Sometimes he shows his sovereignty by miracles. God shows his sovereignty over the human will and therefore also over human actions by controlling them. Thus, he hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh refuses to let the people of Israel leave Egypt; and then God judges him. In a contrary way, God melts the hearts of some individuals and draws them to Jesus.

But why should the sovereignty of God be so objectionable to human beings? If we look at matters superficially, we might think that all people would quite naturally welcome God’s sovereignty. “After all,” we might argue, “what could be better than knowing that everything in the world is really under control in spite of appearances and that God is going to work all things out eventually?” But it is only when we look at externalities that we can think like that. When we peer below the surface we discover that we are all in rebellion against God because of our desire for autonomy.

This was Adam’s problem. It was the root sin. God had told Adam that he was to be as free as any creature in the universe could be. Adam was to rule the world for God. Moreover, he was free to go where he wished and do as he wished. He could eat whatever he wished, with one condition: As a symbol of the fact that he was not autonomous, that he was still God’s creature and owed his life, health, fortune, and ultimate allegiance to God, Adam was forbidden to eat of a tree that stood in the midst of the Garden of Eden. He could eat of all the trees north of that tree, all the trees east of that tree, all the trees south of that tree, all the trees west of that tree. But the fruit of that one tree was forbidden to him, upon penalty of death. “When you eat of it you will surely die,” was God’s warning.

Nothing could have been more irrational than for Adam to eat of that tree. God had never lied to him, so he could believe God. Moreover, Adam owed God utter and unquestioning obedience in this and every other matter. Besides, he had been warned that if he ate he would die. There was nothing to be gained from eating! There was everything to lose! Still, as Adam looked at the tree it was a great offense to him. The tree stood for a limitation on his personal desires. It represented something he was not allowed to do. So Adam said in effect, “That tree is an offense to my autonomy. I do not care if I can eat of all the trees north of here, east of here, south of here, and west of here. As long as I allow that tree to remain untouched, I feel less than human. I feel diminished. Therefore, I am going to eat of it and die, whatever that may mean.”

So Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and death, the punishment for sin, came upon the race.

That is the condition of every human heart. We hate God’s sovereignty because we want to be sovereign ourselves. We want to run our own lives. We want to roam free, to know no boundaries. When we discover that there are boundaries, we hate God for the discovery.

We react like the rulers of the nations in Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters’ ” (vv. 2–3).

We say, “We will not have this God to rule over us.”

The Holy God

It is not only the sovereignty of God that is repugnant to us in our natural, sinful state, however. We oppose God for his holiness as well. One reason is obvious: We hate holiness because we are not holy. God’s holiness exposes our sin, and we do not like exposure. But there is more to it than that. Let me explain.

Holiness is one of the greatest of all God’s attributes, the only one that is properly repeated three times over in worship statements (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty …” [Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8]). We think of holiness as utter righteousness, that God does no wrong. But although holiness includes righteousness, holiness is much more than this and is not basically an ethical term at all. The basic idea of holiness is “separation.” For example, the Bible is called holy (the Holy Bible), not because it is without sin, though it is inerrant, but because it is set apart and different from all other books. Religious objects are holy because they have been set apart for worship. In reference to God, holiness is the attribute that sets him apart from his creation. It has at least four elements.

  1. Majesty. Majesty means “dignity,” “authority of sovereign power,” “stateliness” or “grandeur.” It is the characteristic of strong rulers and of God, who is ruler over all. Majesty links holiness to sovereignty.
  2. Will. A second element in holiness is will, the will of a sovereign personality. This makes holiness personal and active, rather than abstract and passive. Moreover, if we ask what the will of God is primarily set on, the answer is on proclaiming himself as the “Wholly Other,” whose glory must not be diminished by the disobedience or arrogance of men. This element of holiness comes close to what the Bible is speaking of when it refers to God’s proper “jealousy” for his own honor. “Will” means that God is not indifferent to how men and women regard him.
  3. Wrath. Wrath is part of holiness because it is the natural and proper stance of the holy God against all that opposes him. It means that God takes the business of being God so seriously that he will permit no other to usurp his place.
  4. Righteousness. This is the matter mentioned earlier. It is involved in holiness not because it is the term by which holiness may most fully be understood but because it is what the holy God wills in moral areas.

Here is our problem. Precisely because holiness is not an abstract or passive concept, but is instead the active, dynamic character of God at work to punish rebellion and establish righteousness, the experience of confronting the holy God is profoundly threatening. Holiness intrigues us, as the unknown always does. We are drawn to it. But at the same time we are in danger of being undone, and we fear being undone, by the resulting confrontation. When Isaiah had his encounter with the holy God in the passage referred to above, he reacted in terror, crying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:5).

When God revealed himself to Habakkuk, the prophet described the experience by saying, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled …” (Hab. 3:16).

Job said, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Peter exclaimed when he caught only a brief glimpse of Jesus’ holiness, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

The point I am making is this: If confrontation with the holy God is an unpleasant and threatening experience for the best of people—for the saints and prophets of biblical history, for example—how much more threatening must the holiness of God be for outright and unregenerate sinners. For them the experience must be totally overwhelming. No wonder they resist God, make light of him, or deny his existence. A. W. Tozer has written, “The moral shock suffered by us through our mighty break with the high will of heaven has left us all with a permanent trauma affecting every part of our nature.” Tozer is right. Therefore, the holiness of God as well as God’s sovereignty drive us from him.

The Omniscient God

In his study of atheism, Sproul has a particularly good chapter on God’s “omniscience.” This term means that God knows everything, including ourselves and everything about us. We do not like this, as Sproul indicates. He proves his point by looking at four modern treatments of the fear of being known, even by other human beings.

The first is by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist. Sartre has analyzed the fear of being beneath the gaze of someone else in a number of places, but the best known is in his play No Exit. In this play four characters are confined in a room with nothing to do but talk to and stare at each other. It is a symbol of hell. In the last lines of the play this becomes quite clear as Garcin, one of the characters, stands at the mantelpiece, stroking a bronze bust. He says:

Yes, now’s the moment: I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. (He swings around abruptly.) What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. (Laughs.) So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!

The final stage directive says that the characters slump down onto their respective sofas, the laughter dies away, and they “gaze” at each other.

The second modern treatment of the fear of being known by others is from Julius Fast’s Body Language. This book is a study of nonverbal communication, how we express ourselves by various body positions, nods, winks, arm motions, and so forth. There is a discussion of staring, and the point is made that although it is allowable to stare at objects or animals, even for long periods of time, it is not acceptable to stare at human beings. If we do, we provoke embarrassment or hostility or both. Why? Because we associate staring with prying, and we do not want anybody prying into what we think or are.

The third modern study of the significance of the human fear of exposure is Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape. The naked ape is, of course, the human being, the only animal who has no hair or other covering.

The fourth person whose works Sproul studies is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of a human need for hiddenness or solitude.

What emerges from these studies of modern attitudes toward exposure is a strange ambivalence. On the one hand, we want people to look at us, to notice us. If they ignore us, we feel diminished or hurt. At the same time, if they look too long or too intently, we are embarrassed and upset, because we are ashamed of who we are and do not want others to know us very well. If this is the case in our reaction to other human beings, who never really know us deeply even when they pry, and who are in any case sinners like ourselves, how much more traumatic is it to be known by the omniscient God, before whom all hearts are open, all desires known?

Exposure like this is intolerable. So human beings suppress their knowledge of God—because of his omniscience as well as because of his other attributes.

The Immutable God

At the very end of Sproul’s book there is a short “conclusion” in which the author tells how, after he had written the bulk of his study, he remembered a sermon by the great New England preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, entitled “Men [Are] Naturally God’s Enemies.” Sproul wondered how Edwards handled the subject he had been dealing with. So he hunted up the sermon and found Edwards saying that human beings hate God as “an infinitely holy, pure and righteous Being.” They hate him because his omniscience is a “holy omniscience” and his omnipotence is a “holy omnipotence.”5 So far, Edwards seemed to be making the same points Sproul was making.

Then Edwards said, “They do not like his immutability.”

Immutability? thought Sproul. Why immutability?

Immutability means that God does not change. But why should human beings dislike that about God? Edwards explained that it is “because by this he never will be otherwise than he is, an infinitely holy God.” As he thought about this, Sproul began to understand what the great theologian was saying. Men and women hate God for his immutability because it means that he will never be other than he is in all his other attributes.

If the time could come when God might cease to be sovereign, like a retiring chairman of the board, then his sovereignty would not seem particularly bad to us. We are eternal creatures. We could wait him out. When he retires, we could take over.

Again, the holiness of God would not be so offensive to us if the time might come when God would cease to be holy. What God forbids now he might someday condone. Tomorrow or next week or next month he might begin to think differently and change his mind. We could wait to do our sinning.

Omniscience? The time might come when God’s memory would begin to fail and he would forget bad things he knows about us. We could live with that.

But not if God is immutable! If God is immutable, not only is God sovereign today; God will be sovereign tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. God will always be sovereign. In the same way, not only is God holy today. God will always be holy. And not only is God omniscient today. God will always be omniscient. God will never change in any of these great attributes. He is the sovereign, holy, omniscient, and immutable God. He always will be, and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

We may suppress the truth about God out of a wicked rejection of his sovereignty, saying, “We will not have this God to rule over us.” But whether we appreciate his rule or not, God’s sovereignty is precisely what we need. We need a God who is able to rule over our unruly passions, control our destructive instincts, and save us. We may hate God for his holiness. But hate him or not, we need a holy God. We need an upright standard, and we need one who will not cease from working with us until we attain it. We may hate God for his omniscience. But we need a God who knows us thoroughly, from top to bottom, and who loves us anyway. We need a God who knows what we need. We may hate God for his immutability, since he does not change in any of his other attributes. But we need a God we can count on.

Without Excuse

Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

No human being is infinite. Infinitude belongs exclusively to God. Yet, in spite of our finite nature, human beings do seem to have an almost infinite capacity for some things. One of them is for making excuses for reprehensible behavior. Accuse a person of something, and regardless of how obvious the fault may be, the individual immediately begins to make self-serving declarations: “It wasn’t my fault,” “Nobody told me,” “My intentions were good,” “You shouldn’t be so critical.” The two least spoken sentences in the English language are probably “I was wrong” and “I am sorry.”

Some people try to brazen things out by denying the need to make excuses. Walt Whitman once wrote, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” The French have a saying that has a similar intent: “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (”He who excuses himself, accuses himself”). But that is an excuse itself, since it means that the person involved is too great to need to make apologies.

Our text says that in spite of our almost infinite capacity to make excuses, we are all “without excuse” for our failure to seek out, worship, and thank the living God.

“I Didn’t Know God Existed”

The first of our excuses is that we do not know that God exists or at least that we do not know for sure. Every era has had its characteristic excuses for failure to seek and worship God, but in our “scientific age,” this is certainly a very common rationalization. We remember that when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned to earth from his short time in space, he said with typical atheistic arrogance, “I did not see God.” The fact that he could not see God was supposed to be proof of God’s nonexistence. Unfortunately, what Gagarin said is typical of many millions of people in our time, both in the communist East and the capitalistic West. It is the argument that science either has disproved God or else has been unable to give adequate evidence for affirming his existence.

It should be clear by this point, however, that if the Bible is from God, as Christians claim, then whatever we may think about the matter, God at least does not agree with our assessment.

We say, “There is no evidence for God.” Or, “There is insufficient evidence for God.”

God says that quite the contrary is the case. God says that nature supplies evidence that is not only extensive but is also “clearly seen” and fully “understood.” In other words, there is no excuse for atheism.

The alternative put forward today is that the universe is eternal because matter is eternal, and that all we see has come about over a long period of time as the result of chance or random occurrences. This is the view of Carl Sagan, who affirms the eternity of matter. “In the beginning was the cosmos,” cries Sagan. But think through the problems. Suppose everything we see did evolve over long periods of time from mere matter. Suppose our complex universe came from something less complex, and that less complex something from something still less complex. Suppose we push everything back until we come to “mere matter,” which is supposed to be eternal. Have we solved our problem? Not at all! We are trying to explain the complex forms of matter as we know them today, but where did those forms come from? Some would say that the form or purpose we see was somehow in matter to begin with. But, if that is the case, then the matter we are talking about is no longer “mere matter.” It already has purpose, organization, and form, and we need to ask how these very significant elements got there. At some point we must inevitably find ourselves looking for the Purposer, Organizer, or Former.

Moreover, it is not just form that confronts us. There are personalities in the cosmos. We are personalities. We are not mere matter, even complex matter. We have life, and we know ourselves to be entities possessing a sense of self-identity, feelings, and a will. Where could those things come from in an originally impersonal universe? Francis Schaeffer has written, “The assumption of an impersonal beginning can never adequately explain the personal beings we see around us, and when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears.”

Until recently, the most popular fallback from these truths has been the argument that whatever the difficulties may be for supposing an evolution of what we see from mere matter, such is nevertheless possible, given an infinite amount of time and chance occurrence. But there are two problems here.

First, what is chance? People talk as if chance were an entity that could bring about the universe. But chance is merely a mathematical abstraction with no real existence. Suppose you are about to flip a coin and were to ask, “What are the chances of its coming up heads?” The answer is fifty percent (ignoring the possibility that it may stick in the mud on its side). Suppose further that you do flip the coin and that it comes up heads. What made it come up heads? Did chance do it? Of course not. What made it come up heads was the force of your thumb on the coin, the weight of the coin, the resistance of the air, the distance from your hand to the ground, and other variables. If you knew and could plot every one of those variables, you would be able to tell exactly what would happen—whether the coin would land either heads or tails. You do not know the variables. So you say, “Chances are that it will come up heads fifty percent of the time.” But the point I am making is that chance didn’t do it. Chance is nothing. So to say that the universe was created by chance is to say that the universe was created by nothing, which is a meaningless statement.

What about there being an infinite amount of time? As I have pointed out, even with an infinite amount of time nothing with form or purpose comes into being apart from an original Former or Purposer. But supposing it could. Even this does not explain the universe, for the simple reason that the universe has not been around for an infinite amount of time. Science itself tells us that the universe is in the nature of fifteen to twenty billion years old. It speaks of an original beginning known popularly as the Big Bang. True, fifteen to twenty billion years is a long time, more time than we can adequately comprehend. But such time is not infinite! That is the point. And if it is not infinite, then an appeal to infinity does not explain the existence of our very complex universe.

“I didn’t know God existed”? Can anyone really affirm that in face of the evidence for the existence of God in nature? The Bible says we cannot, and even a secular analysis of the options supports the Bible’s statement. Ignorance is no excuse for failing to seek and worship God, because we are not ignorant.

“I Have Too Many Questions”

There are people who might follow what I have said to this point and even agree with most of it but who would nevertheless excuse themselves on the ground that they still have too many questions about Christianity. They recognize that the God we are talking about is not just “any god” but the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. And when they think about that they have a host of questions. They suppose that these are valid excuses for their rejection of the deity. For example:

  1. What about the poor innocent native in Africa who has never heard of Christ? Every preacher gets asked this question. In fact, it is probably the question most asked by Christians and non-Christians alike. But it is also true that Romans 1:18–20, the text we have been studying, answers it. The implication behind this question is that the “innocent” native is going to be sent to hell for failing to do something he has never had an opportunity to do, namely, believe on Jesus Christ as his Savior, and that a God who would be so unjust as to condemn the “innocent” native cannot be God. And that is true! God must be just, and God would be unjust if he condemned a person for failing to do what he or she obviously did not have the opportunity of doing.

But that is not the case in regard to the so-called innocent in Africa. To be sure, the native is innocent of failing to believe on Jesus if he or she has never heard of Jesus. But it is not for this that the native or anyone else who has not heard of Jesus is condemned. As Romans 1 tells us, the native is condemned for failing to do what he or she actually knows he or she should do, that is, seek out, worship, and give thanks to the God revealed in nature. Everyone falls short there. A person might argue that the native actually does seek God, offering in proof the widespread phenomenon of religion in the world. Man has rightly been called homo religiosus. But that is no excuse either, for the universality of religion, as Paul is going to show in the next verses, is actually evidence of man’s godlessness. Why? Because the religions that man creates are actually attempts to escape having to face the true God. We invent religion—not because we are seeking God, but because we are running away from him.

To repeat what we have seen in the last two studies: (1) all human beings know God as a result of God’s revelation of himself to us through nature, but (2) instead of allowing that revelation to lead us to God, we repress the revelation and instead set up false gods of our own imaginations to take the true God’s place. The reason, as we have also seen, is that (3) we do not like the God to which this natural revelation leads us.

  1. Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions? This is an excuse we also often hear, but it is as unsubstantial as the first one. We are told that as the data from science has come in, so many errors have been found in the Bible that no rational person could possibly believe that it is God’s true revelation. It follows that at best the Bible is a collection of insightful human writings, so no one can intelligently buy into Christianity on the basis of the biblical “revelation.”

The problem with this argument is its premise. It assumes that the accumulation of historical and scientific facts has uncovered an increasing number of textual and other problems, but actually the opposite is the case. As the data has come in over the decades, particularly over the last few decades, the tendency is for the Bible to be vindicated. Time magazine recognized this in a cover story in the December 30, 1974, issue. The story was captioned “How True Is the Bible?” In this essay the magazine’s editors examined the chief radical critics of the recent past—Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, and others—but concluded:

The breadth, sophistication and diversity of all this biblical investigation are impressive, but it begs a question: Has it made the Bible more credible or less? Literalists who feel the ground move when a verse is challenged would have to say that credibility has suffered. Doubt has been sown, faith is in jeopardy. But believers who expect something else from the Bible may well conclude that its credibility has been enhanced. After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived—and is perhaps the better for the siege.

Even on the critics’ own terms—historical fact—the scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.

It is hard to see how anyone can use the alleged “contradictions” in the Bible to justify a failure to seek out and worship the Bible’s God, especially after he or she has investigated the evidence thoroughly.

  1. If there is a God and the God who exists is a good God, why does he tolerate evil? The argument has two forms. One form is philosophical, asking how evil could have entered a world created and ruled by a benevolent God. The other is personal and practical, asking why things happen to me that I do not like or why God does not give me what I ask him for or do what I tell him in my prayers I want him to do.

The philosophical problem is difficult. If we ask how evil could originate in an originally perfect world, there is no one, so far as I know, who has ever answered that puzzle adequately. If God made all things good, including Adam and Eve, so that nothing within them naturally inclined toward evil in any way, then it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how Adam or Eve or any other perfect being could do evil. But I must point out that although Christians may not have an adequate explanation for the origin of evil (at least at this point in the history of theological thought), our difficulty here is at least only half as great as that of the unbeliever. For the unbeliever has the problem not only of explaining the origin of evil; he has the problem of explaining the origin of the good as well. In any case, our failure to understand how evil came about does not disprove its existence any more than it disproves the existence of God.

The second form of this problem is personal and practical. It is the form of the question that probably troubles most people: “Why does God tolerate evil, particularly in my life? Why do bad things happen to me? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers as I would like?”

Part of the answer to this problem is that if we got what we deserved, we would be suffering not merely the evils we now know but rather those eternal torments that are to be the lot of the unregenerate in hell. In other words, instead of saying, “Why do bad things happen to me?” we should be saying, “Why do good things happen to me?” All we deserve is evil. If our life has any good in it, that good (however minimal) should point us to the God from whom all good comes. That we do not follow that leading, but instead complain about God’s treatment, only increases our guilt. It shows us to be precisely what Paul declares we are in Romans 1:18: godless and wicked.

Let me illustrate how this works. After I had preached the sermon that is printed as chapter 16 of this volume (“The Psychology of Atheism”), I received an unsigned note in which someone objected to my comments about the natural man’s hatred of God’s sovereignty. He (or she) said, “Preach sermons to your congregation, not to the radio audience. Deal with the hard questions. The difficulty is not that I am not sovereign but that the sovereignty of God does not seem good. When the answers to my prayers seem to make no sense, what then am I to think of God? Deal with that one.”

The tone of this note was a bit insulting, as you can see. But the problem is not that it was insulting to me. The problem is that it was insulting to God. Moreover, it was itself a refutation of the point it was making. The questioner was saying that he or she had no difficulty with the concept of God’s sovereignty, only with what God does—if God exists. But, of course, what is that if not a challenge to God’s sovereignty? It is a way of saying, “God, I am not going to believe in you unless you come down from your lofty throne, stand here before little me and submit to my interrogation. I will not acknowledge you unless you explain yourself to me.” Could anything be more arrogant than that? To demand that God justify his ways to us? Or even to think that we could understand him if he did? Job was not challenging God’s sovereignty. He was only seeking understanding. But when God interrogated him, asking if he could explain how God created and sustains the universe, poor Job was reduced to near stammering. He said, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

It is interesting that the same week in which I got this note, demanding that God explain himself on our level before we believe on him, I got another letter that was quite different. This person described a particularly horrible week that he had just gone through. But then he said, “Seeing the situation in the light of God’s sovereignty made it possible for me to ask forgiveness for my anger and open my eyes to what God wants me to see, namely, that my life will frequently be ‘disordered,’ but he will never let it get out of control.” Do you see the difference?

Is it right to have questions about why God acts as he does? Of course! Who has not had them? It is right to believe and then seek understanding. But to use an inability to understand some things as an excuse for failing to respond to what we do know is that deliberate repression of the truth about which Paul was speaking in our text.

“I Didn’t Think It Was Important”

The weakest excuse that anyone can muster is the statement that “I just didn’t think it was important.” That is obviously faulty—if God exists and we are all destined to meet him and give an account of our actions some day. Nothing can be as important as getting the most basic of our relationships right: the relationship of ourselves to God. And yet, for one reason or another—perhaps just because the press of life’s many demands seems more important—we push this greatest of all issues aside.

How do you think that is going to sound when you appear before God at the last day?

“I didn’t think it was important”?

“I didn’t think you were important”?

“I didn’t think my repression of the truth about you mattered”?

A little later on in Romans, Paul tells what is going to happen in that last day. Men and women are going to appear before God with their excuses, but when they do, says Paul, “Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world [will be] held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:20). Even in this day there are no valid excuses, as Paul declares in Romans 1:20. But in that day the excuses will not even be spoken, so obvious will it be that all human beings—from the smallest to the greatest—are guilty of godlessness.

Since today is not yet that final day, there is still time to turn from the arrogance that pits finite minds and sinful wills against God.

Do you remember Methuselah? He lived longer than any other man—969 years. His name means “When he is gone it shall come.” “It” was the great flood of God’s judgment. That flood destroyed the antediluvian world. But the reason I refer to Methuselah and his longevity is that he is a picture of God’s great patience with those who sin against him. During the early years of Methuselah’s life God sent a preacher named Enoch to turn the race from its sin. Enoch preached that judgment was coming: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14–15). After Enoch died, Noah continued the preaching. For the entire lifetime of Methuselah, all 969 years, the flood did not come. God was gracious, “patient … not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But, though patient, God was not indifferent to sin, and at last Methuselah died, and wrath did indeed come.

We live in a similar age today. Today is the day of God’s grace. But wrath is gathering. We see it about us like the rising waters of the flood. Do not wait to be overtaken by it. Do not make excuses. Admit that you are “without excuse” in God’s sight and quickly take refuge in the Savior.[2]

18. For revealed, &c. He reasons now by stating things of a contrary nature, and proves that there is no righteousness except what is conferred, or comes through the gospel; for he shows that without this all men are condemned: by it alone there is salvation to be found. And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact,—that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable ingratitude.

To some it seems that this is a main subject, and that Paul forms his discourse for the purpose of enforcing repentance; but I think that the discussion of the subject begins here, and that the principal point is stated in a former proposition; for Paul’s object was to teach us where salvation is to be found. He has already declared that we cannot obtain it except through the gospel: but as the flesh will not willingly humble itself so far as to assign the praise of salvation to the grace of God alone, Paul shows that the whole world is deserving of eternal death. It hence follows, that life is to be recovered in some other way, since we are all lost in ourselves. But the words, being well considered, will help us much to understand the meaning of the passage.

Some make a difference between impiety and unrighteousness, and think, that by the former word is meant the profanation of God’s worship, and by the latter, injustice towards men; but as the Apostle immediately refers this unrighteousness to the neglect of true religion, we shall explain both as referring to the same thing. And then, all the impiety of men is to be taken, by a figure in language, as meaning “the impiety of all men,” or, the impiety of which all men are guilty. But by these two words one thing is designated, and that is, ingratitude towards God; for we thereby offend in two ways: it is said to be ἀσέβεια, impiety, as it is a dishonouring of God; it is ἀδικία, unrighteousness, because man, by transferring to himself what belongs to God, unjustly deprives God of his glory. The word wrath, according to the usage of Scripture, speaking after the manner of men, means the vengeance of God; for God, in punishing, has, according to our notion, the appearance of one in wrath. It imports, therefore, no such emotion in God, but only has a reference to the perception and feeling of the sinner who is punished. Then he says that it is revealed from heaven; though the expression, from heaven, is taken by some in the sense of an adjective, as though he had said, “the wrath of the celestial God;” yet I think it more emphatical, when taken as having this import, “Wheresoever a man may look around him, he will find no salvation; for the wrath of God is poured out on the whole world, to the full extent of heaven.”

The truth of God means, the true knowledge of God; and to hold in that, is to suppress or to obscure it: hence they are charged as guilty of robbery.—What we render unjustly, is given literally by Paul, in unrighteousness, which means the same thing in Hebrew: but we have regard to perspicuity.

19. Inasmuch as what may be known of God, &c. He thus designates what it behoves us to know of God; and he means all that appertains to the setting forth of the glory of the Lord, or, which is the same thing, whatever ought to move and excite us to glorify God. And by this expression he intimates, that God in his greatness can by no means be fully comprehended by us, and that there are certain limits within which men ought to confine themselves, inasmuch as God accommodates to our small capacities what he testifies of himself. Insane then are all they who seek to know of themselves what God is: for the Spirit, the teacher of perfect wisdom, does not in vain invite our attention to what may be known, τὸ γνωστὸν; and by what means this is known, he immediately explains. And he said, in them rather than to them, for the sake of greater emphasis: for though the Apostle adopts everywhere Hebrew phrases, and ב, beth, is often redundant in that language, yet he seems here to have intended to indicate a manifestation, by which they might be so closely pressed, that they could not evade; for every one of us undoubtedly finds it to be engraven on his own heart. By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself.

20. Since his invisible things, &c. God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror, or the representation of invisible things. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity;3 for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.

So that they are inexcusable. It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence—that men cannot allege any thing before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is. Hence the Apostle in Heb. 11:3, ascribes to faith the light by which man can gain real knowledge from the work of creation, and not without reason; for we are prevented by our blindness, so that we reach not to the end in view; we yet see so far, that we cannot pretend any excuse. Both these things are strikingly set forth by Paul in Acts 14:17, when he says, that the Lord in past times left the nations in their ignorance, and yet that he left them not without witness (ἁμάρτυρον,) since he gave them rain and fertility from heaven. But this knowledge of God, which avails only to take away excuse, differs greatly from that which brings salvation, which Christ mentions in John 17:3, and in which we are to glory, as Jeremiah teaches us, ch. 9:24.[3]

19–20 The creation bears clear witness to its Maker, and the evidence is “plain to them.” Here Paul enters into a discussion of what is usually designated as natural revelation in distinction from the special revelation that comes through the Scriptures. Four characteristics are noted. First, it is a clear and perceivable testimony, as the word “plain” implies. Second, from the use of “understood” (v. 20), the revelation does not stop with perception but is expected to include reflection, the drawing of conclusions about the Creator. Third, it is a constant testimony, maintained “since the creation of the world” (cf. Ac 14:17). Fourth, it is a limited testimony in that it reflects God in certain aspects only, namely, “his eternal power and divine nature.” One has to look elsewhere for the full expression of his love and grace, i.e., to the special revelation of Scripture and especially to the revelation of God in his Son (Jn 1:14). Natural revelation is sufficient to make humanity responsible: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5; cf. Ps 19:1–4; Isa 40:12–31). But such knowledge is not by itself sufficient to accomplish salvation. The element of power is common to the two spheres of nature (v. 20) and grace (v. 16). Acquaintance with it in the former area should have prepared people to expect it in the latter. But they have failed and are left “without excuse.”[4]

19  Verses 19–20 have two purposes. On the one hand, Paul justifies his assertion that people “suppress” the truth (v. 18b). On the other hand, he wants to show that people who sin and are correspondingly subject to God’s wrath are responsible for their situation. They are “without excuse” (v. 20b). He accomplishes both purposes by asserting that people have been given a knowledge of God: “for what can be known55 about God is manifest among them.” For Jews, as Paul will acknowledge later (2:18, 20), this knowledge of God comes above all through the law of Moses. Here, however, he is interested in the knowledge of God available to all people through the nature of the world itself. Therefore, what Paul says in the following verses, though not limited to Gentiles (since Jews, too, have knowledge of God through nature), has particular relevance to them.

The last clause of v. 19 explains “is manifest”: what can be known of God has been made visible because God has “made it known.” Only by an act of revelation from above—God “making it known”—can people understand God as he is.

20  The “for” introducing this verse shows that Paul continues the close chain of reasoning about the knowledge of God that he began in v. 19. He has asserted that what can be known of God is visible among people generally and that this is so only because God has acted to disclose himself. Now he explains how it is that God has made this disclosure. Two different connections among the main elements in the verse are possible: (1) “his invisible attributes … have been seen through the things he has made, being understood”; (2) “his invisible attributes … have been seen, being understood through the things he has made.”60 Probably the latter makes better sense because, on the former rendering, the word “being understood” is somewhat redundant. The subject of this complex clause, “his invisible attributes,”62 is further defined in the appositional addition, “his eternal power and his deity.” What is denoted is that God is powerful and that he possesses those properties normally associated with deity. These properties of God that cannot be “seen” (aorata) are “seen” (kathoratai)—an example of the literary device called oxymoron, in which a rhetorical effect is achieved by asserting something that is apparently contradictory. God in his essence is hidden from human sight, yet much of him and much about him can be seen through the things he has made. Paul is thinking primarily of the world as the product of God’s creation (see, e.g., Ps. 8), though the acts of God in history may also be included.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to “understand” something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19–20).

The last clause of v. 20, “so that they are without excuse,” states a key element in our interpretation of vv. 19–20. For Paul here makes clear that “natural revelation,” in and of itself, leads to a negative result. That Paul teaches the reality of a revelation of God in nature to all people, this text makes clear. But it is equally obvious that this revelation is universally rejected, as people turn from knowledge of God to gods of their own making (cf. vv. 22ff.). Why this is so, Paul will explain elsewhere (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). But it is vital if we are to understand Paul’s gospel and his urgency in preaching it to realize that natural revelation leads not to salvation but to the demonstration that God’s condemnation is just: people are “without excuse.” That verdict stands over the people we meet every day just as much as over the people Paul rubbed shoulders with in the first century, and our urgency in communicating the gospel should be as great as Paul’s.[5]

19 Verses 19–20 have two purposes. On the one hand, Paul justifies his assertion that people “suppress” the truth (v. 18b). On the other hand, he wants to show that people who sin and are correspondingly subject to God’s wrath are responsible for their situation. They are “without excuse” (v. 20b). He accomplishes both purposes by asserting that people have been given a knowledge of God: “for what can be known55 about God is manifest among them.” For Jews, as Paul will acknowledge later (2:18, 20), this knowledge of God comes above all through the law of Moses. Here, however, he is interested in the knowledge of God available to all people through the nature of the world itself. Therefore, what Paul says in the following verses, though not limited to Gentiles (since Jews, too, have knowledge of God through nature), has particular relevance to them.

The last clause of v. 19 explains “is manifest”: what can be known of God has been made visible because God has “made it known.” Only by an act of revelation from above—God “making it known”—can people understand God as he is.

20 The “for” (Gk. gar) introducing this verse shows that Paul continues the close chain of reasoning about the knowledge of God that he began in v. 19. He has asserted that what can be known of God is visible among people generally and that this is so only because God has acted to disclose himself. Now he explains how it is that God has made this disclosure. Two different connections among the main elements in the verse are possible: (1) “his invisible attributes … have been seen through the things he has made, being understood”; (2) “his invisible attributes … have been clearly seen … being understood through what he has made” (CSB and most versions). Probably the latter makes better sense because, on the former rendering, the word “being understood” is somewhat redundant.60 The subject of this complex clause, “his invisible attributes,” is further defined in the appositional addition, “his eternal power and his deity”: God is powerful and he possesses those properties normally associated with deity.62 These properties of God that cannot be “seen” (aorata) are “seen” (kathoratai)an example of the literary device called oxymoron, in which a rhetorical effect is achieved by asserting something that is apparently contradictory. God in his essence is hidden from human sight, yet much of him and much about him can be seen through the things he has made. Paul is thinking primarily of the world as the product of God’s creation (see, e.g., Ps. 19:1–6), though the acts of God in history may also be included.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to understand something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19–20).

The last clause of v. 20, “so that they are without excuse,” states a key element in our interpretation of vv. 19–20. For Paul here makes clear that natural revelation, in and of itself, leads to a negative result. This text asserts that God has revealed something of himself to all people in the world he has made. But it is equally obvious that this revelation is universally rejected, as people turn from knowledge of God to gods of their own making (vv. 21–23, 25). Why this is so, Paul will explain elsewhere (Rom. 5:12–21). But it is vital if we are to understand Paul’s gospel and his urgency in preaching it to realize that natural revelation leads not to salvation but to the demonstration that God’s condemnation is just: people are “without excuse.” That verdict stands over the people we meet every day just as much as over the people Paul rubbed shoulders with in the first century, and our urgency in communicating the gospel should be as great as Paul’s.[6]

1:19–21 / Verses 19–21 are critical for the argument because they assert that the problem of human guilt is not God’s hiddenness and therefore humanity’s ignorance, but rather God’s self-disclosure and humanity’s rejection of it. The Greek conjunction dioti (niv, since) at the beginning of verse 19 carries a causal force. Thus, men are without excuse. Twice (vv. 19, 21) Paul says that God can be known. Several commentators translate the Greek word gnōston (niv, known) as “knowable,” thus suggesting that even if humanity did not know God, it could have known God. “Knowable,” of course, also lessens humanity’s guilt. Paul, however, indicates that humanity did know at least something of God (see v. 21: they knew God), and his argument depends on its having known him. Moreover, in the Greek nt, gnōston normally means “known” as opposed to “knowable”; its root, in fact, means not knowledge about something, but knowledge of it by experience. Paul is therefore saying that all persons have experienced God … and could have experienced more. Creation bears God’s fingerprints, and through it humanity has experienced something of God’s wisdom, power, and generosity. The idea here echoes Paul’s Areopagus speech (Acts 17:27–28) that God is not far from his creatures.

A word may be in order at this point about natural theology. Is Paul saying that it was possible for humanity to know God apart from revelation in Jesus Christ? Again in 2:14 he seems to hint of a natural morality among the Gentiles who had never been taught the Mosaic law. These passages have been the subject of confusion, due in part to lack of definition of terms. As it was developed during the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “natural religion” meant the ability of unaided human reason to perceive and know God. But Paul is not exactly speaking of unaided human reason. His starting point is not humanity (as epitomized by natural theology), but God who makes himself known through creation. His topic is thus revelation, although revelation through nature and morality rather than through Jesus Christ, or revelation via creation as opposed to revelation via salvation history. Ultimately Paul is less interested in how the world knows God than that it has experienced God and is hence without excuse.

The guilt of humanity, then, is due not to want of truth, but to the suppression of the truth (v. 18). If guilt were due to ignorance it would be an intellectual problem, but in reality it is a problem of the will, which is sin. The fundamental problem of humanity was not, as the Greeks thought, a problem of reason, but a problem of the will (v. 27). The proper response would have been to glorify God and give thanks to him. But when humanity rejected what God had declared of himself in creation it became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (see also Eph. 4:17–18). Having denied God they denied themselves and nature. This became the first step in substituting a counterfeit for God, which is idolatry.

Loss of touch with reality leads to confusion, from which terrible ironies arise. The mystery of revelation consisted in a paradox: God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen. This sounds like an oxymoron, for how can something invisible be seen? Nevertheless, God has continued to make known his invisible attributes, both his power and deity, through the created order, and no one can claim ignorance of them. A conception of humanity groping to a higher understanding of God seems foreign to Paul. Knowledge of God begins with God: God has made it plain to them.

Again in verse 21 Paul employs the causal dioti (niv, for although) to summarize verses 19–20. Humanity’s knowledge and experience of God did not lead people, as it should have, to glorify God or give thanks to him, but to “futility,” “foolishness,” and “darkness” (v. 21). Paul broaches the idea that he will develop below, namely, that humanity substitutes a false god for the true God. According to the prophets this was the reason for the fall of both the Northern (2 Kings 17:15) and Southern (Jer. 2:5) Kingdoms. In an earlier epistle Paul spoke of the Gentiles as “slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8). Luther rightly spoke of the problem of imaginary gods. “How many there are even today who worship him not as if he were God but as if he were as they themselves imagine him for themselves!” (Lectures on Romans, p. 25). In a withering criticism of religious aspirations Feuerbach asserted that “god” is simply a projection of the human imagination. This is supremely illustrated by Milton’s Satan, who, seeing the Son of God at the Father’s right hand, suffered a “sense of injur’d merit,” and “thought himself impaired” (PL 1.98; 5.662). Plotting to usurp the Son’s position, Satan commits the folly of a creature revolting against its creator and becomes, in the words of C.S. Lewis, himself more a “Lie than a Liar, a personified self-contradiction” (Preface, ch. 13).[7]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 76–82). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 137–160). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 67–71). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] 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, p. 48). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 103–106). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 114–117). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[7] Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 50–52). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Romans 1:18 Commentary Series

The Wrath of God

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in ungodliness, (1:18)

As Paul begins to unfold the details of the gospel of God in which His righteousness is revealed (see vv. 16–17), he presents an extended discussion of the condemnation of man that extends through chapter 3 and verse 20. He starts with an unequivocal affirmation of God’s righteous wrath.

The idea of a wrathful God goes against the wishful thinking of fallen human nature and is even a stumbling block to many Christians. Much contemporary evangelism talks only about abundant life in Christ, the joy and blessings of salvation, and the peace with God that faith in Christ brings. All of those benefits do result from true faith, but they are not the whole picture of God’s plan of salvation. The corollary truth of God’s judgment against sin and those who participate in it must also be heard.

For Paul, fear of eternal condemnation was the first motivation he offered for coming to Christ, the first pressure he applied to evil men. He was determined that they understand the reality of being under God’s wrath before he offered them the way of escape from it. That approach makes both logical and theological sense. A person cannot appreciate the wonder of God’s grace until he knows about the perfect demands of God’s law, and he cannot appreciate the fullness of God’s love for him until he knows something about the fierceness of God’s anger against his sinful failure to perfectly obey that law. He cannot appreciate God’s forgiveness until he knows about the eternal consequences of the sins that require a penalty and need forgiving.

Orgē (wrath) refers to a settled, determined indignation, not to the momentary, emotional, and often uncontrolled anger (thumos) to which human beings are prone.

God’s attributes are balanced in divine perfection. If He had no righteous anger and wrath, He would not be God, just as surely as He would not be God without His gracious love. He perfectly hates just as He perfectly loves, perfectly loving righteousness and perfectly hating evil (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity, including much of evangelicalism, is the failure to preach and teach the wrath of God and the condemnation it brings upon all with unforgiven sin. The truncated, sentimental gospel that is frequently presented today falls far short of the gospel that Jesus and the apostle Paul proclaimed.

In glancing through a psalter from the late nineteenth century, I discovered that many of the psalms in that hymnal emphasize the wrath of God, just as much of the book of Psalms itself emphasizes His wrath. It is tragic that few hymns or other Christian songs today reflect that important biblical focus.

Scripture, New Testament as well as Old, consistently emphasizes God’s righteous wrath. Against those who scoff at Him, God “will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury.” The psalmist goes on to admonish, “Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled” (Ps. 2:5, 12). Asaph wrote, “At Thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse were cast into a dead sleep. Thou, even Thou, art to be feared; and who may stand in Thy presence when once Thou art angry?” (Ps. 76:6–7). Another psalmist reminded unfaithful Israel of what God had done to the defiant Egyptians who refused to let His people leave: “He sent upon them His burning anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a band of destroying angels. He leveled a path for His anger; He did not spare their soul from death, but gave their life over to the plague, and smote all the first-born in Egypt” (Ps. 78:49–51). Speaking in behalf of Israel, Moses lamented, “For we have been consumed by Thine anger, and by thy wrath we have been dismayed. Thou hast placed our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy presence. For all our days have declined in Thy fury” (Ps. 90:7–9).

The prophets spoke much of God’s wrath. Isaiah declared, “By the fury of the Lord of hosts the land is burned up, and the people are like fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:19). Jeremiah proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched’ ” (Jer. 7:20). Through Ezekiel, God warned His people that “their silver and their gold [would] not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord. They cannot satisfy their appetite, nor can they fill their stomachs, for their iniquity has become an occasion of stumbling” (Ezek. 7:19).

In many well-known ways God expressed His wrath against sinful mankind in past ages. In the days of Noah, He destroyed all mankind in the Flood, except for eight people (Gen. 6–7). Several generations after Noah, He confounded men’s language and scattered them around the earth for trying to build an idolatrous tower to heaven (Gen. 11:1–9). In the days of Abraham, He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, with only Lot and his family escaping (Gen. 18–19). He destroyed Pharaoh and his army in the sea as they vainly pursued the Israelites to bring them back to Egypt (Ex. 14). He poured out His wrath against pagan kings such as Sennacherib (2 Kings 18–19), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4), and Belshazzar (Dan. 5). He even poured out His wrath against some of His own people—against King Nadab for doing “evil in the sight of the Lord, and [walking] in the way of his father and in his sin which he made Israel sin” (1 Kings 15:25–26) and against Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, for questioning Moses’ revelations from Him (Num. 12:1–10).

God’s wrath is just as clearly exhibited in the New Testament, both in reference to what He has already done and to what He will yet do at the end of the age. The gospel of John, which speaks so eloquently of God’s love and graciousness, also speaks powerfully of His anger and wrath. The comforting words “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” are followed closely by the warning “He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:16, 36).

Later in his epistle to the Romans, Paul focuses again on God’s wrath, declaring, “God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22). The apostle warned the Corinthians that anyone who did not love the Lord Jesus was to be eternally cursed (1 Cor. 16:22). He said to the Ephesians, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). He warned the Colossians that because of “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry, … the wrath of God will come” (Col. 3:5–6). He assured the persecuted Thessalonian believers that God would one day give them relief and that “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, [He will deal] out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–8).

A disease has to be recognized and identified before seeking a cure means anything. In the same way and for the same reason, Scripture reveals the bad news before the good news. God’s righteous judgment against sin is proclaimed before His gracious forgiveness of sin is offered. A person has no reason to seek salvation from sin if he does not know he is condemned by it. He has no reason to want spiritual life unless he realizes he is spiritually dead.

With the one exception of Jesus Christ, every human being since the Fall has been born condemned, because when Adam and Eve fell, the divine sentence against all sinners was passed. Paul therefore declared to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He reminded the Ephesians: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:1–3).

In the brief scope of one verse (Rom. 1:18), Paul presents six features that characterize God’s wrath: its quality, its time, its source, its extent and nature, and its cause.

The Quality of God’s Wrath

of God (1:18a)

First, the quality of this wrath is seen in the fact that it is divine, it is of God. It is therefore unlike anything we know of in the present world. God’s wrath is not like human anger, which is always tainted by sin. God’s wrath is always and completely righteous. He never loses His temper. The Puritan writer Thomas Watson said, “Is God so infinitely holy? Then see how unlike to God sin is.… No wonder, therefore, that God hates sin, being so unlike to him, nay, so contrary to him; it strikes at his holiness.”

Unable to reconcile the idea of God’s wrath with his own ideas of goodness and righteousness, one liberal theologian made this claim: “We cannot think with full consistency of God in terms of the highest human ideals of personality and yet attribute to Him the rational passion of anger.” But it is foolish, not to mention unbiblical, to measure God by human standards and to discount the idea of His wrath simply because human anger is always flawed by sin.

God’s anger is not capricious, irrational rage but is the only response that a holy God could have toward evil. God could not be holy and not be angry at evil. Holiness cannot tolerate unholiness. “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor,” Habakkuk says of the Lord (Hab. 1:13). And as Paul declares, neither can love tolerate unholiness, refusing to “rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Cor. 13:6).

Jesus twice cleansed the Temple because He was incensed at the money changers and sacrifice sellers who made His “Father’s house a house of merchandise” and “a robber’s den” (John 2:14–16; Matt. 21:12–13). He was furious that His Father’s house was flagrantly dishonored. Speaking in place of the sinful inhabitants of Jerusalem, Jeremiah acknowledged the rightness of God’s punishment of them, saying, “The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against His command; hear now, all peoples, and behold my pain; my virgins and my young men have gone into captivity” (Lam. 1:18). In confessing before Joshua that he had kept for himself some booty from Jericho that was to be reserved for the house of the Lord, Achan acknowledged that the punishment he was about to receive was just and righteous (Josh. 7:20–25).

Even in the warped and perverted societies of men, indignation against vice and crime is recognized as an essential element of human goodness. We expect people to be outraged by gross injustice and cruelty. The noted Greek exegete Richard Trench said, “There [can be no] surer and sadder token of an utterly prostrate moral condition than … not being able to be angry with sin-and sinners” (Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], p. 134). God is perfectly so all the time with a holy fury.

The Timing of God’s Wrath

is revealed (1:18b)

Second, the timing of God’s wrath is seen in the fact that it is revealed, a better rendering being “constantly revealed.” God’s wrath is continually being revealed, perpetually being manifested. Apokaluptō (revealed) has the basic meaning of uncovering, bringing to light, or making known.

God’s wrath has always been revealed to fallen mankind and is repeatedly illustrated throughout Scripture. It was first revealed in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve trusted the serpent’s word above God’s. Immediately the sentence of death was passed on them and on all their descendants. Even the earth itself was cursed. As already mentioned, God’s wrath was revealed in the Flood, when God drowned the whole human race except for eight souls, in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. It was revealed in the curse of the law upon every transgression and in the institution of the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant. Even the imperfect laws that men make to deter and punish wrongdoers reflect and thereby help to reveal the perfect and righteous wrath of God.

By far the surpassing revelation of God’s wrath was that placed upon His own Son on the cross, when Jesus took to Himself the sin of the world and bore the full divine force of God’s fury as its penalty God hates sin so deeply and requires its penalty so that He allowed His perfect, beloved Son to be put to death as the only means by which fallen mankind might be redeemed from its curse.

The British commentator Geoffrey B. Wilson wrote, “God is no idle spectator of world events; He is dynamically active in human affairs. The conviction of sin is constantly punctuated by Divine judgment” (Romans: A Digest of Reformed Comment [London: Banner of Truth], p. 24). The historian J. A. Froude wrote, “One lesson, and only one, history may be said to repeat with distinctness; that the world is built somehow on moral foundations; that, in the long run, it is well with the good; in the long run, it is ill with the wicked” (Short Studies on Great Subjects, vol. 1, “The Science of History” [London: Longmans Green and Co., 1915], p. 21).

We wonder, then, why so many wicked people prosper, seemingly doing evil with utter impunity. But if God’s wrath is delayed, His bowl of wrath is all the while filling up, increasing judgment for increased sin, They are only storing up wrath for the coming day of wrath (Rom. 2:5).

Donald Grey Barnhouse recounts the story of a group of godly farmers in a Midwest community being irritated one Sunday morning by a neighbor’s plowing his field across from their church. Noise from his tractor interrupted the worship service, and, as it turned out, the man had purposely chosen to plow that particular field on Sunday morning in order to make a point. He wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, asserting that, although he did not respect the Lord or honor the Lord’s Day, he had the highest yield per acre of any farm in the county. He asked the editor how Christians could explain that. With considerable insight and wisdom, the editor printed the letter and followed it with the simple comment, “God does not settle [all] His accounts in the month of October” (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], p. 220).

The Source of God’s Wrath

from heaven (1:18c)

God’s wrath is rendered from heaven. Despite Satan’s present power as prince of the air and of this world, the earth is ultimately dominated by heaven, the throne of God, from which His wrath is constantly and dynamically manifested in the world of men.

Paul frequently speaks about the wrath, indicating a specific time or type of wrath. Although the nasb rendering does not indicate it, there is a definite article before wrath in Romans 3:5, which should read, “who inflicts the wrath.” In chapter 5 he speaks of our being “saved from the wrath of God through” Christ (v. 9), in chapter 12 of our leaving “room for the wrath of God” (v. 19), and in chapter 13 of believers being in subjection to God “not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (v. 5). In his letter to Thessalonica he assures believers that Jesus delivers them “from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).

Heaven reveals God’s wrath in two ways, through His moral order and through His personal intervention. When God made the world, He built in certain moral as well as physical laws that have since governed its operation. Just as a person falls to the ground when he jumps from a high building, so does he fall into God’s judgment when he deviates from God’s moral law. That is built-in wrath. When a person sins, there is a built-in consequence that inexorably works. In this sense God is not specifically intervening, but is letting the law of moral cause and effect work.

The second way in which God reveals His wrath is through His direct and personal intervention. He is not an impersonal cosmic force that set the universe in motion to run its own course. God’s wrath is executed exactly according to His divine will.

Several Hebrew words which convey a highly personal character are used in the Old Testament to describe God’s anger. Ḥārâ is used ninety-one times. It refers to becoming heated, to burning with fury, and is frequently used of God (see, e.g., Gen. 18:30). Ḥārôn is used forty-one times. It refers exclusively to divine anger and means “a burning, fierce wrath” (see, e.g., Ex. 15:7). Qâtsaph, which means bitter, is used thirty-four times, most of which refer to God (see, e.g., Deut. 1:34). The fourth term for wrath is Ḥemâh, which also refers to a venom or poison, is frequently associated with jealousy and is used most often of God (see, e.g., 2 Kings 22:13). David declared that “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11). “Indignation” translates zā˒am, which means to foam at the mouth, and is used over twenty times in the Old Testament, often of God’s wrath.

Whether the cause and effect wrath or the personal fury of God is meted out, the wrath originates in heaven.

The Extent and Nature of God’s Wrath

against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, (1:18d)

The fourth and fifth features of God’s wrath concern its extent and its nature.

God’s wrath is universal, being discharged against all who deserve it. No amount of goodwill, giving to the poor, helpfulness to others, or even service to God can exclude a person from the all Paul mentions here. As he later explains more explicitly, “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin, … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:9, 23). Obviously, some people are morally better than others, but even the most moral and upright person falls far short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. No one escapes.

Men’s relative goodness compared to God’s perfect standard can be illustrated by a hypothetical attempt to jump from the beach near Los Angeles to Catalina Island, a distance of some twenty-six miles. Some people could not manage to jump at all, many could jump a few feet, and a rare few could jump twenty or twenty-five feet. The longest conceivable jump, however, would cover only the smallest fraction of the distance required. The most moral person has as little chance of achieving God’s righteousness in his own power as the best athlete has of making that jump to Catalina. Everybody falls short.

The second emphasis of this phrase is on the nature of God’s wrath. It is not like the wrath of a madman who strikes out indiscriminately, not caring who is injured or killed. Nor is it like the sin-tainted anger of a person who seeks to avenge a wrong done to him. God’s wrath is reserved for and justly directed at sin. Asebia (ungodliness) and adikia (unrighteousness) are synonyms, the first stressing a faulty personal relationship to God. God is angered because sinful men are His enemies (see Rom. 5:10) and therefore “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

Ungodliness refers to lack of reverence for, devotion to, and worship of the true God, a failure that inevitably leads to some form of false worship. Although the details and circumstances are not revealed, Jude reports that Enoch, the righteous seventh-generation descendant of Adam, prophesied about God’s coming “to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him” (Jude 14–15). Four times he uses the term ungodly to describe the focus of God’s wrath upon sinful mankind.

Unrighteousness encompasses the idea of ungodliness but focuses on its result. Sin first attacks God’s majesty and then His law. Men do not act righteously because they are not rightly related to God, who is the only measure and source of righteousness. Ungodliness unavoidably leads to unrighteousness. Because men’s relation to God is wrong, their relation to their fellow men is wrong. Men treat other men the way they do because they treat God the way they do. Man’s enmity with his fellow man originates with his being at enmity with God.

Sin is the only thing God hates. He does not hate poor people or rich people, dumb people or smart people, untalented people or highly skilled people. He only hates the sin that those people, and all others, naturally practice, and sin inevitably brings His wrath.

The Cause of God’s Wrath

who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, (1:18e)

“But how is it,” we ask, “that God can hold everyone responsible for moral and spiritual failure, and be so angry when some people have so much less opportunity than others for hearing the gospel and coming to know God?” The answer is that, because of his sinful disposition, every person is naturally inclined to follow sin and resist God. This phrase could be rendered, “who are constantly attempting to suppress the truth by steadfastly holding to their sin.” Unrighteousness is so much a part of man’s nature that every person has a built-in, natural, compelling desire to suppress and oppose God’s truth.

As Paul declares in the following verse, “That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (v. 19). His point is that all people, regardless of their relative opportunities to know God’s Word and hear His gospel, have internal, God-given evidence of His existence and nature, but are universally inclined to resist and assault that evidence. No matter how little spiritual light he may have, God guarantees that any person who sincerely seeks Him will find Him. “You will seek me and find Me” He promises, “when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

But men are not naturally inclined to seek God. That truth was proved conclusively in the earthly ministry of Christ. Even when face-to-face with God incarnate, the Light of the world, “men loved darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19–20). As David had proclaimed hundreds of years earlier, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). Sinful men oppose the idea of a holy God because they innately realize that such a God would hold them accountable for the sins they love and do not want to relinquish.

Every person, no matter how isolated from God’s written Word or the clear proclamation of His gospel, has enough divine truth evident both within and around Him (Rom. 1:19–20) to enable him to know and be reconciled to God if his desire is genuine. It is because men refuse to respond to that evidence that they are under God’s wrath and condemnation. “This is the judgment,” Jesus said, “that … men loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). Thus God is angry with the wicked every day (Psa. 7:11).[1]

The Angry God

Romans 1:18

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

Today’s preaching is deficient at many points. But there is no point at which it is more evidently inadequate and even explicitly contrary to the teachings of the New Testament than in its neglect of “the wrath of God.” God’s wrath is a dominant Bible teaching and the point in Romans at which Paul begins his formal exposition of the gospel. Yet, to judge from most contemporary forms of Christianity, the wrath of God is either an unimportant doctrine, which is an embarrassment, or an entirely wrong notion, which any enlightened Christian should abandon.

Weakness of Contemporary Preaching

Where do most people begin when making a presentation of Christian truth, assuming that they even speak of it to others? Where does most of today’s Christian “preaching” begin?

Many begin with what is often termed “a felt need,” a lack or a longing that the listener will acknowledge. The need may involve feelings of inadequacy; a recognition of problems in the individual’s personal relationships or work or aspirations; moods; fears; or simply bad habits. The basic issue may be loneliness, or it may be uncontrollable desires. According to this theory, preaching should begin with felt needs, because this alone establishes a point of contact with a listener and wins a hearing. But does it? Oh, it may establish a contact between the teacher and the listener. But this is not the same thing as establishing contact between the listener and God, which is what preaching is about. Nor is it even necessarily a contact between the listener and the truth, since felt needs are often anything but our real needs; rather, they can actually be a means of suppressing them.

Here is the way Paul speaks of a felt need in another letter: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). “What their itching ears want to hear” is a classic example of a felt need. In this passage the apostle warns Timothy not to cater to it. Obviously he himself did not structure the presentation of his gospel around such “needs.”

Another way we present the gospel today is by promises. We offer them like a carrot, a reward to be given if only the listener accepts Jesus. Through this approach, becoming a Christian is basically presented as a means of getting something. Sometimes this is propounded in a frightfully unbiblical way, so that what emerges is a “prosperity gospel” in which God is supposed to be obliged to grant wealth, health, and success to the believer.

We also commonly offer the gospel by the route of personal experience, stressing what Jesus has done for us and commending it to the other person for that reason.

The point I am making is that Paul does not do this in Romans, and in this matter he rebukes us profitably. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it like this:

Why is he [Paul] ready to preach the gospel in Rome or anywhere else? He does not say it is because he knows that many of them [the Romans] are living defeated lives and that he has got something to tell them that will give them victory. He does not say to them, “I want to come and preach the gospel to you in Rome because I have had a marvelous experience and I want to tell you about it, in order that you may have the same experience—because you can if you want it; it is there for you.”

This is not what Paul does.… There is no mention here of any experience. He is not talking in terms of their happiness or some particular state of mind, or something that might appeal to them, as certain possibilities do—but this staggering, amazing thing, the wrath of God! And he puts it first; it is the thing he says at once.

The reason, of course, is that Paul was God-centered, rather than man-centered, and he was concerned with that central focus. Most of us are weak, fuzzy, or wrong at this point. Paul knew that what matters in the final analysis is not whether we feel good or have our felt needs met or receive a meaningful experience. What matters is whether we come into a right relationship with God. And to have that happen we need to begin with the truth that we are not in a right relationship to him. On the contrary, we are under God’s wrath and are in danger of everlasting condemnation at his hands.

Wrath: A Biblical Idea

There is a problem at this point, of course, and the problem is that most people think in human categories rather than in the terms of Scripture. When we do that, “wrath” inevitably suggests something like capricious human anger or malice. God’s wrath is not the same thing as human anger, of course. But because we fail to appreciate this fact, we are uneasy with the very idea of God’s wrath and think that it is somehow unworthy of God’s character. So we steer away from the issue.

The biblical writers had no such reticence. They spoke of God’s wrath frequently, obviously viewing it as one of God’s great “perfections”—alongside his other attributes. Says J. I. Packer, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” Arthur W. Pink wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.”3

In the Old Testament more than twenty words are used to refer to God’s wrath. (Other, very different words relate to human anger.) There are nearly six hundred important passages on the subject. These passages are not isolated or unrelated, as if they had been added to the Old Testament at some later date by a particularly gloomy redactor. They are basic and are integrated with the most important themes and events of Scripture.

The earliest mentions of the wrath of God are in connection with the giving of the law at Sinai. The first occurs just two chapters after the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments: “[The Lord said,] ‘Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger [wrath] will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless’ ” (Exod. 22:22–24).

Ten chapters later in Exodus, in a very important passage about the sin of Israel in making and worshiping the golden calf (a passage to which we will return), God and Moses discuss wrath. God says, “Now leave me alone so that my anger [wrath] may burn against them and that I may destroy them.…” But Moses pleads, “Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people” (Exod. 32:10–12).

In this early and formative passage, Moses does not plead with God on the grounds of some supposed innocence of the people—they were not innocent, and Moses knew it—nor with the fantasy that wrath is somehow unworthy of God’s character. Rather Moses appeals only on the grounds that God’s judgment would be misunderstood and that his name would be dishonored by the heathen.

There are two main words for wrath in the New Testament. One is thymos, from a root that means “to rush along fiercely,” “to be in a heat of violence,” or “to breathe violently.” We can capture this idea by the phrase “a panting rage.” The other word is orgē which means “to grow ripe for something.” It portrays wrath as something that builds up over a long period of time, like water collecting behind a great dam. In his study of The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris notes that apart from the Book of Revelation, which describes the final outpouring of God’s wrath in all its unleashed fury, thumos is used only once of God’s anger. The word used in every other passage is orgẽ. Morris observes, “The biblical writers habitually use for the divine wrath a word which denotes not so much a sudden flaring up of passion which is soon over, as a strong and settled opposition to all that is evil arising out of God’s very nature.”

John Murray describes wrath in precisely this way when he writes in his classic definition: “Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.”

We find this understanding of the wrath of God in Romans. In this letter Paul refers to wrath ten times. But in each instance the word he uses is orgẽ, and his point is not that God is suddenly flailing out in petulant anger against something that has offended him momentarily, but rather that God’s firm, fearsome hatred of all wickedness is building up and will one day result in the eternal condemnation of all who are not justified by Christ’s righteousness. Romans 1:17 says, on the basis of Habakkuk 2:4, that “the righteous will live by faith.” But those who do not live by faith will not live; they will perish. Thus, in Romans 2:5 we find Paul writing, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Wrath Revealed

But it is not only a matter of God’s wrath being “stored up” for a final great outpouring at the last day. There is also a present manifesting of this wrath, which is what Paul seems to be speaking of in our text when he says, using the present rather than the future tense of the verb, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” How is this so? In what way is the wrath of God currently being made manifest?

Commentators on Romans suggest a number of observations at this point, listing ways in which God’s wrath against sin seems to be disclosed. Charles Hodge speaks of three such manifestations: “the actual punishment of sin,” “the inherent tendency of moral evil to produce misery,” and “the voice of conscience.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones lists “conscience,” “disease and illness,” “the state of creation,” “the universality of death,” “history,” and (the matter he thinks Paul mainly had in view) “the cross” and “resurrection of Christ.”

Robert Haldane has a comprehensive statement:

The wrath of God … was revealed when the sentence of death was first pronounced, the earth cursed and man driven out of the earthly paradise, and afterward by such examples of punishment as those of the deluge and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire from heaven, but especially by the reign of death throughout the world. It was proclaimed by the curse of the law on every transgression and was intimated in the institution of sacrifice and in all the services of the Mosaic dispensation. In the eighth chapter of this epistle the apostle calls the attention of believers to the fact that the whole creation has become subject to vanity and groaneth and travaileth together in pain. This same creation which declares that there is a God, and publishes his glory, also proves that he is the enemy of sin and the avenger of the crimes of men.… But above all, the wrath of God was revealed from heaven when the Son of God came down to manifest the divine character, and when that wrath was displayed in his sufferings and death in a manner more awful than by all the tokens God had before given of his displeasure against sin.

Each of these explanations of the present revelation of the wrath of God is quite accurate. But in my opinion Paul has something much more specific in view here, the matter that Charles Hodge alone mentions specifically: “the inherent tendency of moral evil to produce misery.” This is what Paul goes on to develop in Romans 1. In verses 21 through 32 Paul speaks of a downward inclination of the race by which the world, having rejected God and therefore being judicially abandoned by God, is given up to evil. It is set on a course that leads to perversions and ends in a debasement in which people call good evil and evil good. Human depravity and the misery involved are the revelation of God’s anger.

A number of years ago, Ralph L. Keiper was speaking to a loose-living California hippie about the claims of God on his life. The man was denying the existence of God and the truths of Christianity, but he was neither dull nor unperceptive. So Keiper directed him to Romans 1, which he described as an analysis of the hippie’s condition. The man read it carefully and then replied, “I think I see what you’re driving at. You are saying that I am the verifying data of the revelation.”

That is exactly it! The present revelation of God’s wrath, though limited in its scope, should be proof to us that we are indeed children of wrath and that we need to turn from our present evil path to the Savior.

Turning Aside God’s Wrath

Here I return to that great Old Testament story mentioned earlier. Moses had been on the mountain for forty days, receiving the law. As the days stretched into weeks, the people waiting below grew restless and prevailed upon Moses’ brother Aaron to make a substitute god for them. It was a golden calf. Knowing what was going on in the valley, God interrupted his giving of the law to tell Moses what the people were doing and to send him back down to them.

It was an ironic situation. God had just given the Ten Commandments. They had begun: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:2–6). While God was giving these words, the people whom he had saved from slavery were doing precisely what he was prohibiting. Not only that, they were lying, coveting, dishonoring their parents, committing adultery, and no doubt also breaking all the other commandments.

God declared his intention to judge the people immediately and totally, and Moses interceded for them in the words referred to earlier (Exod. 32:11–12).

At last Moses started down the mountain to deal with the people. Even on a human level, quite apart from any thought of God’s grace, sin must be judged. So Moses dealt with the sin as best he knew how. First he rebuked Aaron publicly. Then he called for any who still remained on the side of the Lord to separate themselves from the others and stand beside him. The tribe of Levi responded. At Moses’ command they were sent into the camp to execute the leaders of the rebellion. Three thousand men were killed, approximately one-half of one percent of the six hundred thousand who had left Egypt at the Exodus (Exod. 32:28; cf. 12:37—with women and children counted, the number may have been more than two million). Moses also destroyed the golden calf. He ground it up, mixed it with water, and made the people drink it.

From a human standpoint, Moses had dealt with the sin. The leaders were punished. Aaron was rebuked. The allegiance of the people was at least temporarily reclaimed. But Moses stood in a special relationship to God, as Israel’s representative, as well as to the people as their leader. And God still waited in wrath on the mountain. What was Moses to do?

For theologians sitting in an ivory-tower armchair, the idea of the wrath of God may seem to be no more than an interesting speculation. But Moses was no armchair theologian. He had been talking with God. He had heard his voice. He had receive his law. Not all the law had been given by this time, but Moses had received enough of it to know something of the horror of sin and of the uncompromising nature of God’s righteousness. Had God not said, “You shall have no other gods before me”? Had he not promised to punish sin to the third and fourth generation of those who disobey him? Who was Moses to think that the judgment he had imposed would satisfy a God of such holiness?

Night passed, and the morning came when Moses was to ascend the mountain again. He had been thinking, and during the night a way that might possibly divert the wrath of God had come to him. He remembered the sacrifices of the Hebrew patriarchs and the newly instituted rites of the Passover. God had shown by such sacrifices that he was prepared to accept an innocent substitute in place of the just death of the sinner. God’s wrath could sometimes fall on the substitute. Moses thought, “Perhaps God would accept.…”

When morning came, Moses ascended the mountain with great determination. Reaching the top, he began to speak to God. It must have been in great anguish, for the Hebrew text is uneven and Moses’ second sentence breaks off without ending (indicated by a dash in the middle of Exod. 32:32). This is the strangled sob welling up from the heart of a man who is asking to be damned if his own judgment could mean the salvation of those he had come to love. The text reads: “So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod. 32:31–32). Moses was offering to take the place of the people and accept judgment on their behalf.

On the preceding day, before Moses had come down from the mountain, God had said something that could have been a great temptation. If Moses would agree, God would destroy the people and start again to make a new Jewish nation from Moses (Exod. 32:10). Even then Moses had rejected the offer. But, after having been with his people and being reminded of his love for them, his answer, again negative, rises to even greater heights. God had said, “I will destroy the people and save you.”

Now Moses replies, “Rather destroy me and save them.”

Moses lived in the early years of God’s revelation and at this point probably had a very limited understanding of God’s plan. He did not know, as we know, that what he prayed for could not be. He had offered to go to hell for his people. But Moses could not save even himself, let alone Israel. He, too, was a sinner. He, too, needed a savior. He could not die for others.

But there is One who could. Thus, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). That person is Jesus, the Son of God. His death was for those who deserve God’s wrath. And his death was fully adequate, because Jesus did not need to die for his own sins—he was sinless—and because, being God, his act was of infinite magnitude.

That is the message Paul will expound in this epistle. It is the Good News, the gospel. But the place to begin is not with your own good works, since you have none, but by knowing that you are an object of God’s wrath and will perish in sin at last, unless you throw yourself upon the mercy of the One who died for sinners, even Jesus Christ.[2]

18. For revealed, &c. He reasons now by stating things of a contrary nature, and proves that there is no righteousness except what is conferred, or comes through the gospel; for he shows that without this all men are condemned: by it alone there is salvation to be found. And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact,—that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable ingratitude.

To some it seems that this is a main subject, and that Paul forms his discourse for the purpose of enforcing repentance; but I think that the discussion of the subject begins here, and that the principal point is stated in a former proposition; for Paul’s object was to teach us where salvation is to be found. He has already declared that we cannot obtain it except through the gospel: but as the flesh will not willingly humble itself so far as to assign the praise of salvation to the grace of God alone, Paul shows that the whole world is deserving of eternal death. It hence follows, that life is to be recovered in some other way, since we are all lost in ourselves. But the words, being well considered, will help us much to understand the meaning of the passage.

Some make a difference between impiety and unrighteousness, and think, that by the former word is meant the profanation of God’s worship, and by the latter, injustice towards men; but as the Apostle immediately refers this unrighteousness to the neglect of true religion, we shall explain both as referring to the same thing. And then, all the impiety of men is to be taken, by a figure in language, as meaning “the impiety of all men,” or, the impiety of which all men are guilty. But by these two words one thing is designated, and that is, ingratitude towards God; for we thereby offend in two ways: it is said to be ἀσέβεια, impiety, as it is a dishonouring of God; it is ἀδικία, unrighteousness, because man, by transferring to himself what belongs to God, unjustly deprives God of his glory. The word wrath, according to the usage of Scripture, speaking after the manner of men, means the vengeance of God; for God, in punishing, has, according to our notion, the appearance of one in wrath. It imports, therefore, no such emotion in God, but only has a reference to the perception and feeling of the sinner who is punished. Then he says that it is revealed from heaven; though the expression, from heaven, is taken by some in the sense of an adjective, as though he had said, “the wrath of the celestial God;” yet I think it more emphatical, when taken as having this import, “Wheresoever a man may look around him, he will find no salvation; for the wrath of God is poured out on the whole world, to the full extent of heaven.”

The truth of God means, the true knowledge of God; and to hold in that, is to suppress or to obscure it: hence they are charged as guilty of robbery.—What we render unjustly, is given literally by Paul, in unrighteousness, which means the same thing in Hebrew: but we have regard to perspicuity.[3]

18 At the outset it is important to observe the correlation between righteousness and wrath. In parallel statements, both are represented as being “revealed” (apokalyptetai, GK 636, as in v. 17). As previously observed, full salvation in terms of divine righteousness awaits the future, being eschatological in nature; but salvation also belongs to the present and is appropriated by faith. Similarly, wrath is an even more obviously eschatological concept, yet it is viewed here as parallel to the manifestation of righteousness, belonging therefore to the present age. It is “revealed” or “being revealed” (so NIV, reflecting the progressive present tense). This means that the unfolding of history involves a disclosure of the wrath of God against sin, seen in the terrible corruption and perversion of human life. This does not mean that the price of sin is to be reckoned only in terms of the present operation of wrath, for there is a day of judgment awaiting the sinner (2:5). But the divine verdict is already in some measure anticipated in the present. “Paul regards the monstrous degradation of pagan populations, which he is about to describe (vv. 24–27 and 29–32), not as a purely natural consequence of their sin, but as a solemn intervention of God’s justice in the history of mankind, an intervention which he designates by the term paradidonai [GK 4140]—to give over” (Godet, 101).

Paul states that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” It is difficult to accept Dodd’s assertion, 47–50, that we are mistaken to conclude that God is angry. Dodd notes that Paul never uses the verb “be angry” with God as its subject. He further points out that in the Pauline corpus “the wrath of God” appears elsewhere only in Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6. Most of the time we encounter the simple “wrath” or “the wrath,” which appears intended, according to Dodd, to describe “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” It is precarious, however, to make much of the fact that God is not directly linked with wrath in every Pauline reference. The context usually makes it clear when the divine wrath is intended. In the passage before us, the words “from heaven” are decisive. As Gustaf Dalman (The Words of Jesus [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909], 219) points out, “from heaven” in the Gospels means “from God.” Furthermore, since there is a wrath to come that will inevitably involve God, there is no reason why he should not involve himself in manifesting his wrath in the present. Human objection to the idea of the wrath of God is often molded, sometimes unconsciously, by the human experience of anger as passion or desire for revenge. But this is only a human display of wrath, and one that is corrupted. God’s wrath is not to be thought of as merely or purely an emotion but primarily as his active judgment (cf. 13:4–5, where its juridical character is evident). It is “the necessary response of a perfect and holy God to violations of his will” (Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002], 56).

The object of the divine wrath is twofold—the “godlessness and wickedness” of humanity. Paul explicates the first term in vv. 19–27 and the second in vv. 28–32. “Godlessness” (asebeia, GK 813) means a lack of reverence, an impiety that arrays a person against God, not simply in terms of neglect but also of rebellion. “Wickedness” (adikia, “unrighteousness,” GK 94) means injustice, relating to the immorality that destroys human relationships. The two together point to human failure regarding the commandments of both tables of the Decalogue. As Nygren, 101, puts it, “a wrong relation to God is the ultimate cause of man’s corruption.”

They “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Unrighteousness has a blinding effect not only on its perpetrators but also hinders others from seeing the truth. Presumably the truth referred to here is basically the truth about God (cf. v. 25). Suppression of the truth implies knowledge of the truth, and what this involves is explained next.[4]

18  In light of the stark contrast between the “revelation of the righteousness of God” (v. 17) and “the revelation of the wrath of God,” we would expect v. 18 to begin with a strong adversative—“but” or “however.” Instead, v. 18 is linked to the preceding verses with the word “for,” which normally introduces a reason or explanation for a previous statement. It may be that the word here has lost its normal causal meaning and that we should simply ignore it (note that it is untranslated in NIV, TEV, and NJB). Some scholars, however, think that the close biblical connection between righteousness and wrath allows Paul to claim the reality of God’s righteousness because the wrath of God is present. But Paul is not using the word “righteousness” in v. 17 in a way that would make this connection likely. It is best, then, to retain the usual force of “for,” but to view it as introducing the answer to a question implicit in what Paul has just said: Why has God manifested his righteousness and why can it be appropriated only through faith? Viewed in this light, this conjunction introduces the entire argument of 1:18–3:20—which, indeed, is encapsulated in v. 18.

Since the time of certain Greek philosophers, the idea that God would inflict wrath on people has been rejected as incompatible with an enlightened understanding of the deity. The second-century Christian heretic Marcion omitted “of God” in v. 18, and many others since would like to omit the verse altogether. In our day, C. H. Dodd is representative of those who have rejected or drastically modified the traditional conception of God’s wrath. Criticizing the conception of a God who personally exercises wrath as “archaic,” he argues that Paul’s “wrath of God” is no more than “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.”30 But such a conception of God has more in common with the Greek philosophical abstraction of God than the biblical presentation of a personal, active God.

In the Bible wrath is an aspect of God’s person, as is clear from the many OT texts that make the “kindling” of God’s wrath the basis for his judgment. God’s wrath is necessary to the biblical conception of God: “As long as God is God, He cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction.” The OT regularly pictures God as responding to sin with wrath;32 but, particularly in the prophets, the wrath of God is associated with the Day of the Lord as a cosmic, climactic outbreak of judgment. Although Paul works with this same conception of God’s wrath, he stresses the working and effects of God’s wrath. Paul speaks of wrath as a present reality under which people outside Christ stand, and often, following the OT prophets, predicts the outpouring of God’s wrath on the future day of judgment.34 If the main verb in v. 18 is a “futuristic present,” Paul could here also be predicting this climactic outbreak of wrath at the end of history, as in 2:5. But the verb is most likely depicting a present-time situation.36

If, then, Paul presents God’s wrath as a present reality, how are we to understand that that wrath is now being manifested? And what is the relationship between the two “revelations”—of the righteousness of God in v. 17 and of the wrath of God in v. 18? Taking the last question first, a determinative issue is whether the verb “reveal” means “reveal [a truth] to the mind” or “manifest [an action] in history.” One provocative interpretation that takes the verb in the first sense is associated with Karl Barth. He argues that the revelation of both God’s righteousness and wrath takes place in the preaching of the gospel. For the gospel proclaims the cross, and Jesus’ death on the cross reveals both the possibility for a new righteousness and the seriousness of God’s wrath against human sin. Although this view does justice to the parallelism between vv. 17 and 18, it suffers from some fatal objections. Barth’s interpretation also requires that “reveal” have a cognitive sense: “make known, disclose.” But as we have seen, this same verb in v. 17 has a “historical” sense: “come into historical reality” (from the “hiddenness” of God’s purpose). It is probable that this is the meaning of the verb in v. 18 also, especially since the object of this “revealing” is not people but the sins of people, or people as sinners: God’s wrath is revealed “upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of human beings.”

If, then, “reveal” indicates the actual inflicting of God’s wrath, when, and how, does it take place? Although God will inflict his wrath on sin finally and irrevocably at the end of time (2:5), there is an anticipatory working of God’s wrath in the events of history. Particularly, as vv. 24–28 suggest, the wrath of God is now visible in his “handing over” of human beings to their chosen way of sin and all its consequences. As Schiller’s famous aphorism puts it, “The history of the world is the judgment of the world.” It is this judgment of the world that the present infliction of God’s wrath is intended to reveal. For the present experience of God’s wrath is merely a foretaste of what will come on the day of judgment. Furthermore, what both the warning of “wrath to come” and the present experience of wrath demonstrate is the sentence of condemnation under which all people outside Christ stand. It is this reality that Paul wants to get across to this readers here.

What, then, of the parallel between vv. 17 and 18? Some would go so far as to make this exercise of wrath a part of the righteousness of God. But only if righteousness is taken broadly as an attribute of God is this possible, and we have seen good reason to reject this interpretation. On the other hand, the parallel with v. 17 may suggest that this condemning activity is particularly bound up with the eschatological breaking in of the new age in Christ. Though it is clear that God has inflicted his wrath in the past,43 the inauguration of “the last days” means that the final, climactic wrath of God is already making itself felt. The wrath of God falls more deservedly than ever before on people now that God’s righteousness in Christ is being publicly proclaimed.

Paul’s mention of the fact that God’s wrath is being revealed “from heaven” adds weight to what Paul is saying: it “significantly implies the majesty of an angry God, and His all-seeing eye, and the wide extent of His wrath: whatever is under heaven, and yet not under the Gospel, is under this wrath.” Paul specifies two objects of God’s wrath: “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” Some distinguish the two words, arguing that the former refers to sins of a religious nature and the latter to sins of a moral nature.46 Paul would then be following a sequence similar to that of the Decalogue, which focuses on a person’s duty to God in the first four commandments and on one’s duty to others in the second six. Moreover, it is claimed that 1:19–32 picks up this same sequence, as Paul concentrates first on people’s rejection of God (vv. 19–27) and then on the disruption of human relations that flows from this rejection. The point would be, as S. L. Johnson puts it, “immorality in life proceeds from apostasy in doctrine.”49 Although this interpretation is attractive and theologically sound, it does not have sufficient basis in the meaning of the words Paul uses.

Paul further characterizes the people who are guilty of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” as those who “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.” “Truth” in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God’s just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it.52 In this case, as Meyer says, they “do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.”[5]

1:18 / The wickedness of men is now contrasted with the “righteousness of God” in 1:17. The Greek word translated wickedness, adikia, is the negative of the “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) of God in verse 17. Thus, the Greek draws an unmistakable parallelism between the revelation of God’s righteousness (v. 17) and the revelation of God’s wrath against human unrighteousness (v. 18). The object of God’s wrath is the suppression of the truth. The truth Paul has in mind is probably not truth in general (although suppressing truth in any form is bad enough), but the truth of God. “Sin is always an assault upon the truth,” says Cranfield (Romans, vol. 1, p. 112). God’s wrath burns against perverting the truth, for once people stop believing in the truth, as G. K. Chesterton once said, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything! Sacrificing the truth of God leads to the denial of reality (v. 20), a lie (v. 25), a depraved mind (v. 28), and the approval of unrighteousness (v. 32).

Wickedness, appearing twice in verse 18 and again in 1:29, 2:8, and 3:5, dominates Paul’s treatment of the guilt of humanity. In the Greek text verse 18 is introduced with the conjunction “for” (gar, omitted in niv), which links verses 18ff. with verses 16–17. “For” adds a necessary corollary to what Paul has already said about salvation, namely, that one cannot be made right with God other than “by faith from first to last” (v. 17). Paul is thus not getting sidetracked on the sorry state of the world, but is demonstrating that apart from faith there can be no receiving of grace.

The wrath of God (v. 18) is revealed along with the righteousness of God (v. 17) and is inseparable from it. Although they may seem like opposites, both righteousness and wrath comprise the gospel. God’s anger appears to contradict what we know of his love and forgiveness. Wrath, at least in human experience, connotes vengeance and retaliation fueled with self-interest, which erupts in irrational and injurious excess. But God’s wrath is different. It is not an arbitrary nightmare of raw power. It is guided by God’s covenant relationship with his people. God’s wrath is divine indignation against the corruption of his good creation. When understood in this way, God’s anger does not jeopardize his goodness; rather, it is a corollary of it, for if God were not angered by unrighteousness he would not be thoroughly righteous (see Eph. 2:3–5). God’s wrath is thus not an aberration of his divine nature, but the result of holy love encountering evil and unrighteousness.

God’s wrath is not always apparent in the course of history. Bad consequences do not necessarily follow bad actions; good things sometimes befall them, and conversely, bad things sometimes befall good actions. We cannot say that the wrath of God is simply a nemesis, the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe, as does C. H. Dodd (Romans, pp. 21–24). Nor must we try, as did ancient Jewish rabbis, to divorce wrath from God by ascribing it to angelic intermediaries. God’s wrath is rather a judgment from heaven. It is grounded in God’s righteous perspective on evil and his power over it. God’s wrath is not synonymous with historical catastrophes, as Hegel, for example, regarded it, but it is divine judgment in history. God’s wrath is witnessed supremely in Gethsemane and Golgotha, where, in the forsakenness of his Son, God took the extreme penalty for sin on himself!

Wrath and righteousness, therefore, are equally expressions of God’s grace. If in what follows we hear the gavel of condemnation, it is only to hush all human protestations and self-justifications so that the acquittal of grace may be heard. The Judge condemns in order to save. Only those who know that they are lost will look for help. The good news of free salvation can be heard only by those who have first been briefed on the hopelessness of their case.

As an expression of holy love in the face of human evil, God’s wrath is directed not against persons, but against their godlessness and wickedness. Its object is that which specifically opposes the divine goodness and will. The adjective all may suggest that Paul understands godlessness and wickedness rather synonymously, but the words carry different nuances. The Greek asebeia entails the denial of the holy or unrighteousness, here rendered godlessness. Paul may be thinking of those offenses against the majesty of God which are found in the first four commandments (Exod. 20:1–8). Adikia (niv, wickedness), on the other hand, means immorality or self-righteousness and is an offense against the just ordering of human relationships as required in the final six commandments (Exod. 20:12–17). God’s wrath is directed against whatever fractures divine and human relationships, whether in motive or in deed.[6]

Ver. 18.—For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold back the truth in unrighteousness. Here the argumentation of the Epistle begins, the first position to be established being that all mankind without exception is guilty of sin before God, and therefore unable of itself to put in a plea of righteousness. This being proved, the need of the revelation of God’s righteousness, announced in ver. 17, appears. “The wrath of God” is an expression with which we are familiar in the Bible, being one of those in which human emotions are attributed to God in accommodation to the exigencies of human thought. It denotes his essential holiness, his antagonism to sin, to which punishment is due. It expresses an idea as essential to our conception of the Divine righteousness as do the words, “love” and “mercy.” Wrath, or indignation, against evil is as necessary to our ideal of a perfect human being as is love of good; and therefore we attribute wrath to the perfect Divine Being, using of necessity human terms for expressing our conception of the Divine attributes. When the Name of the Lord was proclaimed before Moses (Exod. 34:5, etc.), it was of One not only “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” but also “that will by no means clear the guilty.” This last attribute is the same as what we mean by the Divine wrath. This “wrath of God” is said in the verse before us to be “revealed from heaven.” How so? Is it in the gospel, as is God’s righteousness (ver. 18)? Against this view is the change of expression—ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ instead of ἐν αὐτῷ—as well as the fact that the gospel is not in itself a revelation of wrath, but the very opposite. Is it in the Old Testament? Possibly in part; but the marked repetition of ἀποκαλύπτεται in the present tense seems to point to some obvious revelation now; and, further, the first part of the proof, to the end of the second chapter, does not rest on the Old Testament. Is it what the apostle proceeds so forcibly to draw attention to—the existing, and at that time notorious, moral degradation of heathen society, which he regards as evidence of Divine judgment? This may have been before his view; and, as he goes on at once to speak of it, it probably was so prominently. But the revelation of Divine wrath against sin seems to imply more than this as the argument goes on, viz. the evident guilt before God of all mankind alike, and not only of degraded heathenism. It is difficult to decide, among the various explanations that have been offered, on any specific mode of revelation which the writer had in view. Perhaps no particular one exclusively. Commentators may be often unduly anxious to affix an exact sense to pregnant words used by St. Paul, who so often indicates comprehensive ideas by short phrases. He may have had before his mind various concurrent signs of human guilt, and the Divine wrath against it, at that especial time of the world’s history; all which, to his mind at least, brought conviction as by a light from heaven. And the gospel itself (though in its essence a revelation of mercy, so that he purposely avoids saying that wrath was in it revealed) still had been the most powerful means of all for bringing home a conviction of the Divine wrath to the consciences of believers. For its first office is to convince of sin and of judgment. Cf. the words of the forerunner, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” On all such grounds we may conceive that the apostle spoke of the wrath of God against human sin being especially at that time plainly revealed from heaven; and he desires to bring his readers to perceive it as he did. For now was the time of the Divine purpose to bring it home to all (cf. Acts 17:30, “The times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent”). “All ungodliness and unrighteousness” (ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν) comprehends all evil-doing, in whatever aspect viewed, whether as impiety or as wrong. The phrase, τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν κατεχόντων, is wrongly translated in the Authorized version, “who hold the truth.” If the verb κατέχειν allowed this rendering here, it would indeed be intelligible in reference to the knowledge of God, even by nature, which all men have or ought to have, though they do not act upon it, and the very potential possession of which renders them guilty. This is the thought of what immediately follows. Thus the sense would be, “They hold, i.e. possess, the truth; but they do unrighteousness.” But whenever κατέχειν means “to hold,” it denotes a firm hold, not a loose hold, such as would be thus implied. It occurs in this sense in 1 Cor. 11:2 (“I praise you that ye keep the ordinances”); and 1 Thess. 5:21 (“Hold fast that which is good”). We must, therefore, have recourse to a second sense in which the verb is also used—that of “keeping back,” or “restraining.” Thus Luke 4:42 (“The people stayed him, that he should not depart from them”) and 2 Thess. 2:6 (“Ye know what withholdeth”). The reference is still to the innate knowledge of God which all men are supposed to have had originally; but the idea expressed is not their ‘having’ it, but their suppressing it. “Veritas in mente nititur et urget: sed homo eam impedit” (Bengel).[7]

1:18 ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ, “for the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” γάρ, “for,” can express simply connection or continuation of thought without specifying what precisely the connection is (BGD). That a connection of thought is certainly intended is clear from the parallel structuring of vv 17 and 18. But the ὁργὴ θεοῦ ἐπὶ ἀδικίαν as against the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ εἰς πίστιν (v 17) strongly suggests that the connection is as much of contrast as of cause (Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit, 80; and Kertelge, Rechtfertigung, 88; despite Gaugler and Herold, 329–30). However, see on 1:17 (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, final paragraph) and Schlatter, 52–54.

The repetition of ἀποκαλύπτεται is obviously deliberate (cf. particularly Schmidt). It conveys the same idea of heavenly revelation (here explicitly—ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ), that is, from God. And the eschatological overtone is confirmed by the fact that the ὀργὴ θεοῦ is of a piece with God’s final judgment (2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; in Jewish thought divine wrath is not a particularly eschatological concept—but note Isa 13:9, 13; Zeph 1:15, 18; 2:2–3; 3:8; Dan 8:19; Jub. 24.30); God’s final judgment is simply the end of a process already in train (cf. particularly 1 Enoch 84.4; 91.7–9)! The clear implication is that the two heavenly revelations are happening concurrently, as well as divine righteousness, so also divine wrath; to take the second ἀποκαλύπτεται as future (Eckstein) destroys the parallel and draws an unnecessary distinction between God’s wrath and the divine action in “he handed over” in παρέδωκεν (vv 24, 26, 28). In the OT the wrath of God has special reference to the covenant relation (SH), but here the implication, quickly confirmed (vv 19 ff.), is that Paul is shifting from a narrower covenant perspective to a more cosmic or universal perspective, from God understood primarily as the God of Israel to God as Creator of all. However, if the covenant is seen as God restoring Israel to man’s proper place as creature (for the Adam theology of the section, see on 1:22), then Creatorly wrath can be seen as the full scope of the other side of the coin from covenant righteousness (cf. Isa 63:6–7; Sir 5:6; 16:11); and see also 2:5.

The ὀργὴ θεοῦ was a familiar concept in the ancient world—divine indignation as heaven’s response to human impiety or transgression of divinely approved laws, or as a way of explaining communal catastrophes or unlookedfor sickness or death (TDNT 5:383–409). Paul takes up this well-known language as a way of describing the effect of human unrighteousness in the world (vv 19–32), though clearly, in Paul’s view, “wrath” is not something for which God is merely responsible, “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” (Dodd; Macgregor, 105; similarly Hanson, Wrath, 85, 110), nor merely an attitude of God (far less a vengeful attitude of God), but something God does (see Travis, 37–38). The parallel with “the righteousness of God” would be sufficient indication of this, especially when taken in conjunction with other references to God’s wrath later in Romans (3:5; 9:22; 12:19), and the repeated παρέδωκεν of vv 24, 26, and 28 puts the issue beyond dispute (cf. Ladd, Theology, 407; Robinson, Wrestling, 18–21; Maillot, 62). Not merely a psychological or sociological process is in view but a process on earth in which heaven (οὐρανοῦ) is involved.

That a degree of irrationality or incalculability was often manifest in the operation of divine wrath was also evident to classical thought (as expressed particularly in the concept of “fate”—see, e.g., OCD). Jewish thought is familiar with the same feature, but within its monotheistic system found it more of a problem; cf. 2 Sam 24:1 and 15–16 with 1 Chron 21:1, 14–15; Job 19:11; Ps 88:16 (TDNT 5:402); and the apocalyptist’s puzzled “How long?” Paul too is conscious of the same problem (3:5; 9:22). Here he expounds the concept in highly moral terms (vv 19–32), but these verses contain the beginning of an answer which he elaborates later in terms of the individual (chaps. 6–8) and of humankind as a whole, Jew and Gentile (chaps. 9–11). In brief, his resolution is that the effect of divine wrath upon man is to show that man who rebels against his relation of creaturely dependence on God (which is what faith is) becomes subject to degenerative processes. Deliverance from these comes through returning to the relation of faith. Such a return does not mean that wrath ceases to operate against man in his fleshliness, but that it becomes part of a larger process whose end is liberation and redemption from all that occasions and involves wrath; cf. Herold—“The eschatological judgment of wrath comes about in accordance with covenant and promise, because it will lead to redemption and to salvation” (Zorn, 301). That this fuller understanding of God’s wrath emerges from the gospel (or at least Paul’s expression thereof) is true, but the actual operation of wrath Paul affirms to be clearly visible in human behavior (Althaus; Michel; Bruce; Travis, 36; against Barth, Shorter; Leenhardt; Schenke, 888; Cranfield; cf. Filson, 39–48; Kuss; Wilckens). For the eschatological dimension of “wrath” see above under ἀποκαλύπτεται and on 2:5.

πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων, “all impiety and unrighteousness of men,” is an all-embracing phrase. In Greek thought it would include hostility to or disregard for what was generally accepted to be good religious practice (typically failure to observe the state cultus) and unlawful conduct toward others (TDNT 1:154). That Paul intends a clear distinction between the words is unlikely, as also the suggestion that he had in mind the two tables of the law (as suggested by Schlatter, 49, and implausibly elaborated by Wilier, 12ff.; but see TDNT 5:190). Such sins were all of a piece in Jewish thought and the phrase is comprehensive, not analytic (cf. Philo, Immut. 112; Spec. Leg. 1.215; Praem. 105). In fact ἀσέβεια is hardly used by Paul (only here and 11:26 in the undisputed Paulines; ἀσεβής only in 4:5 and 5:6), whereas ἀδικία is the more dominant concept (1:29; 2:8; 3:5; 6:13; 9:14; also 1 Cor 13:6; 2 Cor 12:13; 2 Thess 2:10, 12), and, as its repetition here shows, it clearly embraces the full range covered by the more comprehensive phrase in itself.

Not least in significance is the fact that the ἀδικία of men is clearly set in antithesis to the δικαιοσύνη of God (v 17; note also 3:5; cf. 1QS 3.20). “Unrighteousness” is thus more precisely defined as failure to meet the obligations toward God and man which arise out of relationship with God and man. That the two aspects of unrighteousness go together and follow from failure to recognize and accept what is man’s proper relation to God is the thrust of what follows. It is this unrighteousness on the part of men which makes necessary the initiative of God’s righteousness. Moreover, the fact that the argument can be transposed from the narrower question of Jew/Gentile relation within the saving purpose of God to that of humankind as a whole, and precisely in terms of the play on δικαιοσύνη/ἀδικία strengthens the view of Käsemann, C. Müller, and Stuhlmacher that God’s righteousness is his power and faithfulness as Creator. The πᾶσαν has a polemical edge, since Paul has in view his devout Jewish contemporaries who thought that as δικαιοί they were distanced from all ἀδικία (see on 1:17 and Introduction § 5.3.1). That is to say, v 18 already looks to the fuller exposition of ἀδικία in chap. 2 and thus serves as the opening statement of the whole section (1:18–3:20).

τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων, “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” ἀλήθεια, “truth”—specifically of God (v 25), but here probably intended more broadly in the sense of “the real state of affairs,” things as they actually are (TDNT 1:243). The idea of “holding down, suppressing” (κατεχόντων—BGD), “holding back, restraining” (Murray; see also on 7:6) the truth implies not only the willfulness of man (vv 19–20, 23, 25; so also 2:8), but also that truth not thus suppressed would have effect. In particular “the truth of God” in a Jewish or Jewish-influenced context would carry the connotation of God’s reliability and trustworthiness, Paul thus already prepares the way to tie in the theme of universal indictment with the special issue of God’s faithfulness as Israel’s covenant God (see further Introduction §4.2.2 and on 1:17 [ἐκ … ἐκ …] and 3:3–4, 7). The indictment here is that failure to acknowledge God as Creator results inevitably in a sequence of false relations toward God, toward man, and toward creation itself. See further on 1:25.[8]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 59–68). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 129–136). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 67–69). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] 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. 47–48). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 99–103). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 48–50). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[7] Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). The Pulpit Commentary: Romans (pp. 9–10). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

[8] Dunn, J. D. G. (1998). Romans 1–8 (Vol. 38A, pp. 54–56). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Romans 1:16-17 Commentary Series

The Gospel of Christ

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (1:16–17)

After having gained the attention of his readers by explaining the purpose of his writing and then introducing himself (1:1–15), Paul now states the thesis of the epistle. These two verses express the theme of the book of Romans, and they contain the most life-transforming truth God has put into men’s hands. To understand and positively respond to this truth is to have one’s time and eternity completely altered. These words summarize the gospel of Jesus Christ, which Paul then proceeds to unfold and explain throughout the remainder of the epistle. For that reason, our comments here will be somewhat brief and a more detailed discussion of these themes will come later in the study.

As noted at the close of the last chapter, the introductory phrase for I am not ashamed of the gospel adds a final mark of spiritual service to those presented in verses 8–15, the mark of unashamed boldness.

Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Damascus and Berea, laughed at in Athens, considered a fool in Corinth, and declared a blasphemer and lawbreaker in Jerusalem. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. Some pagans of Paul’s day branded Christianity as atheism because it believed in only one God and as being cannibalistic because of a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper.

But the Jewish religious leaders of Jerusalem did not intimidate Paul, nor did the learned and influential pagans at Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. The apostle was eager now to preach and teach the gospel in Rome, the capital of the pagan empire that ruled virtually all the known world. He was never deterred by opposition, never disheartened by criticism, and never ashamed, for any reason, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although that gospel was then, and still is today, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, it is the only way God has provided for the salvation of men, and Paul was both overjoyed and emboldened by the privilege of proclaiming its truth and power wherever he went.

Although every true believer knows it is a serious sin to be ashamed of his Savior and Lord, he also knows the difficulty of avoiding that sin. When we have opportunity to speak for Christ, we often do not. We know the gospel is unattractive, intimidating, and repulsive to the natural, unsaved person and to the ungodly spiritual system that now dominates the world. The gospel exposes man’s sin, wickedness, depravity, and lostness, and it declares pride to be despicable and works righteousness to be worthless in God’s sight. To the sinful heart of unbelievers, the gospel does not appear to be good news but bad (cf. my comments in chapter 1), and when they first hear it they often react with disdain against the one presenting it or throw out arguments and theories against it. For that reason, fear of men and of not being able to handle their arguments is doubtlessly the single greatest snare in witnessing.

It is said that if a circle of white chalk is traced on the floor around a goose that it will not leave the circle for fear of crossing the white mark. In a similar way, the chalk marks of criticism, ridicule, tradition, and rejection prevent many believers from leaving the security of Christian fellowship to witness to the unsaved.

The so-called health and wealth gospel that has swept through much of the church today is not offensive to the world because it offers what the world wants. But that spurious gospel does not offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the false teaching of the Judaizers, it is “a different gospel,” that is, not the gospel at all but an ungodly distortion (Gal. 1:6–7). Jesus strongly condemned the motives of worldly success and comfort, and those who appeal to such motives play right into the hands of Satan.

A scribe once approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Knowing the man was unwilling to give up his comforts in order to be a disciple, the Lord answered, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matt. 8:19–20). Shortly after that, “another of the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ ” The phrase “bury my father” did not refer to a funeral service but was a colloquialism for awaiting the father’s death in order to receive the inheritance. Jesus therefore told the man, “Follow Me; and allow the dead to bury their own dead” (vv. 21–22).

Geoffrey Wilson wrote, “The unpopularity of a crucified Christ has prompted many to present a message which is more palatable to the unbeliever, but the removal of the offense of the cross always renders the message ineffective. An inoffensive gospel is also an inoperative gospel. Thus Christianity is wounded most in the house of its friends” (Romans: A Digest of Reformed Comment [Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1976], p. 24).

Some years ago I spoke at a youth rally, after which the wife of the rally director approached me. Expressing an unbiblical mentality that is common in the church today, she said, “Your message offended me, because you preached as if all of these young people were sinners.” I replied, “I’m glad it came across that way, because that is exactly the message I wanted to communicate.”

Paul’s supreme passion was to see men saved. He cared nothing for personal comfort, popularity, or reputation. He offered no compromise of the gospel, because he knew it is the only power available that can change lives for eternity.

In verses 16–17, Paul uses four key words that are crucial to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ: power, salvation, faith, and righteousness.


for it is the power of God (1:16b)

First of all, Paul declares, the gospel is the power of God. Dunamis (power) is the Greek term from which our word dynamite is derived. The gospel carries with it the omnipotence of God, whose power alone is sufficient to save men from sin and give them eternal life.

People have an innate desire to be changed. They want to look better, feel better, have more money, more power, more influence. The premise of all advertising is that people want to change in some way or another, and the job of the advertiser is to convince them that his product or service will add a desired dimension to their lives. Many people want to be changed inwardly, in a way that will make them feel less guilty and more content, and a host of programs, philosophies, and religions promise to meet those desires. Many man-made schemes succeed in making people feel better about themselves, but the ideas promoted have no power to remove the sin that brings the feelings of guilt and discontent. Nor can those ideas make men right with God. In fact, the more successful such approaches are from their own standpoint, the more they drive people away from God and insulate them from His salvation.

Through Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). It is not within mans power to change his own nature. In rebuking the Sadducees who tried to entrap Him, Jesus said, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Only the power of God is able to overcome man’s sinful nature and impart spiritual life.

The Bible makes it clear that men cannot be spiritually changed or saved by good works, by the church, by ritual, or by any other human means. Men cannot be saved even by keeping God’s own law, which was given to show men their helplessness to meet His standards in their own power. The law was not given to save men but to reveal their sin and thus to drive men to God’s saving grace.

Later in Romans, Paul declares man’s impotence and God’s power, saying, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), and, “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin” (8:3). Affirming the same basic truth in different words, Peter wrote believers in Asia Minor: “You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23).

Paul reminded the church at Corinth that “the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), and “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (vv. 23–25). What to the world seems to be utter absurdity is in fact the power by which God transforms men from the realm of darkness to the realm of light, and delivers them from the power of death and gives them the right to be called the children of God (John 1:12).

Ancient pagans mocked Christianity not only because the idea of substitutionary atonement seemed ridiculous in itself but also because their mythical gods were apathetic, detached, and remote—totally indifferent to the welfare of men. The idea of a caring, redeeming, self-sacrificing God was beyond their comprehension. While excavating ancient ruins in Rome, archaeologists discovered a derisive painting depicting a slave bowing down before a cross with a jackass hanging on it. The caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the late second century this attitude still existed. A man named Celsus wrote a letter bitterly attacking Christianity. “Let no cultured person draw near, none wise, none sensible,” he said, “for all that kind of thing we count evil; but if any man is ignorant, if any is wanting in sense and culture, if any is a fool, let him come boldly [to Christianity]” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 21; cf. Origen’s Against Celsus). “Of the Christians,” he further wrote, “we see them in their own houses, wool dressers, cobblers and fullers, the most uneducated and vulgar persons” (p. 21). He compared Christians to a swarm of bats, to ants crawling out of their nests, to frogs holding a symposium around a swamp, and to worms cowering in the muck!

Not wanting to build on human wisdom or appeal to human understanding, Paul told the Corinthians that “when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). Later in the letter Paul said, “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power” (4:20), the redeeming power of God.

Every believer, no matter how gifted and mature, has human limitations and weaknesses. Our minds, bodies, and perceptions are imperfect. Yet, incredibly, God uses us as channels of His redeeming and sustaining power when we serve Him obediently.

Scripture certainly testifies to God’s glorious power (Ex. 15:6), His irresistible power (Deut. 32:39), His unsearchable power (Job 5:9), His mighty power (Job 9:4), His great power (Ps. 79:11), His incomparable power (Ps. 89:8), His strong power (Ps. 89:13), His everlasting power (Isa. 26:4), His effectual power (Isa. 43:13), and His sovereign power (Rom. 9:21). Jeremiah declared of God, “It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom” (Jer. 10:12), and through that prophet the Lord said of Himself, “I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm” (Jer. 27:5). The psalmist admonished, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Ps. 33:8–9). His is the power that can save.


for salvation (1:16c)

Surely the greatest manifestation of God’s power is that of bringing men to salvation, of transforming their nature and giving them eternal life through His Son. We learn from the psalmist that, despite their rebelliousness, God saved His chosen people “for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known” (Ps. 106:8). As God incarnate, Jesus Christ manifested His divine power in healing diseases, restoring crippled limbs, stilling the storm, and even raising those who were dead.

Paul uses the noun sōtēria (salvation) some nineteen times, five of them in Romans, and he uses the corresponding verb twenty-nine times, eight of them in Romans. The basic idea behind the term is that of deliverance, or rescue, and the point here is that the power of God in salvation rescues people from the ultimate penalty of sin, which is spiritual death extended into tormented eternal separation from Him.

Some people object to terms such as salvation and being saved, claiming that the ideas they convey are out of date and meaningless to contemporary men. But salvation is God’s term, and there is no better one to describe what He offers fallen mankind through the sacrifice of His Son. Through Christ, and Christ alone, men can be saved from sin, from Satan, from judgment, from wrath, and from spiritual death.

Regardless of the words they may use to describe their quest, men are continually looking for salvation of one kind or another. Some look for economic salvation, others for political or social salvation. As already noted, many people look for inner salvation from the guilt, frustrations, and unhappiness that make their lives miserable.

Even before Paul’s day, Greek philosophy had turned inward and begun to focus on changing man’s inner life through moral reform and self-discipline. William Barclay tells us that the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus called his lecture room “the hospital for sick souls.” Another famous Greek philosopher named Epicurus called his teaching “the medicine of salvation.” Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher and contemporary of Paul, taught that all men were looking ad salutem (“toward salvation”). He taught that men are overwhelmingly conscious of their weakness and insufficiency in necessary things and that we therefore need “a hand let down to lift us up” (The Letter to the Romans [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 19).

Salvation through Christ is God’s powerful hand, as it were, that He has let down to lift men up. His salvation brings deliverance from the spiritual infection of “this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40), from lostness (Matt. 18:11), from sin (Matt. 1:21), and from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). It brings deliverance to men from their gross and willful spiritual ignorance (Hos. 4:6; 2 Thess. 1:8), from their evil self-indulgence (Luke 14:26), and from the darkness of false religion (Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), but only for those who believe.


to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (1:16d)

The fourth key word regarding the gospel is that of faith. The sovereign power of God working through the gospel brings salvation to everyone who believes.

Pisteuō (believes) carries the basic idea of trusting in, relying on, having faith in. When used in the New Testament of salvation, it is usually in the present, continuous form, which could be translated “is believing.” Daily living is filled with acts of faith. We turn on the faucet to get a drink of water, trusting it is safe to drink. We drive across a bridge, trusting it will not collapse under us. Despite occasional disasters, we trust airplanes to fly us safely to our destination. People could not survive without having implicit trust in a great many things. Virtually all of life requires a natural faith. But Paul has in mind here a supernatural faith, produced by God—a “faith that is not of yourselves but the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

Eternal life is both gained and lived by faith from God in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul tells us (Eph. 2:8). God does not first ask men to behave but to believe. Man’s efforts at right behavior always fall short of God’s perfect standard, and therefore no man can save himself by his own good works. Good works are the product of salvation (Eph. 2:10), but they are not the means of it.

Salvation is not merely professing to be a Christian, nor is it baptism, moral reform, going to church, receiving sacraments, or living a life of self-discipline and sacrifice. Salvation is believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Salvation comes through giving up on one’s own goodness, works, knowledge, and wisdom and trusting in the finished, perfect work of Christ.

Salvation has no national, racial, or ethnic barrier but is given to every person who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. It was to the Jew first chronologically because Jews are God’s specially chosen people, through whom He ordained salvation to come (John 4:22). The Messiah came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24).

The great Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane wrote,

From the days of Abraham, their great progenitor, the Jews had been highly distinguished from all the rest of the world by their many and great privileges. It was their high distinction that of them Christ came, “who is over all, God blessed for ever.” They were thus, as His kinsmen, the royal family of the human race, in this respect higher than all others, and they inherited Emmanuel’s land. While, therefore, the evangelical covenant, and consequently justification and salvation, equally regarded all believers, the Jews held the first rank as the ancient people of God, while the other nations were strangers from the covenants of promise. The preaching of the Gospel was to be addressed to them first, and, at the beginning, to them alone, Matt. 10:6; for, during the abode of Jesus Christ upon earth, He was the minister only of the circumcision, Rom. 15:8. “l am not sent,” He says, “but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; and He commanded that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, “beginning at Jerusalem.” … Thus, while Jews and Gentiles were united in the participation of the Gospel, the Jews were not deprived of their rank, since they were the first called.

The preaching of the Gospel to the Jews first served various important ends. It fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, as Isa. 2:3. It manifested the compassion of the Lord Jesus for those who shed His blood, to whom, after His resurrection, He commanded His Gospel to be first proclaimed. It showed that it was to be preached to the chief of sinners, and proved the sovereign efficacy of His Atonement in expatiating [sic] the guilt even of His murderers. It was fit, too, that the Gospel should be begun to be preached where the great transactions took place on which it was founded and established; and this furnished an example of the way in which it is the will of the Lord that His Gospel should be propagated by His disciples, beginning in their own houses and their own country. (An Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans [MacDill AFB, Fla.: MacDonald Publishing Co., 1958], p. 48)

All who believe may be saved. Only those who truly believe will be.


For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (1:17)

The fourth key word Paul uses here regarding the gospel is righteousness, a term he uses over thirty-five times in the book of Romans alone. Faith activates the divine power that brings salvation, and in that sovereign act the righteousness of God is revealed. A better rendering is from God, indicating that He imparts His own righteousness to those who believe. It is thereby not only revealed but reckoned to those who believe in Christ (Rom. 4:5).

Paul confessed to the Philippians, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:8–9). “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21–24).

The German pietist Count Zinzendorf wrote, in a profound hymn,

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day,

For who aught to my charge shall lay?

Fully absolved through these I am,

From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

From faith to faith seems to parallel “everyone who believes” in the previous verse. If so, the idea is “from faith to faith to faith to faith,” as if Paul were singling out the faith of each individual believer.

Salvation by His grace working through man’s faith was always God’s plan, as Paul here implies in quoting from Habakkuk 2:4, as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” Abraham, the father of the faithful, believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3), just as every person’s genuine faith, before and after Abraham, has been reckoned to him as righteousness (see Heb. 11:4–40).

There is emphasis here on the continuity of faith. It is not a one-time act, but a way of life. The true believer made righteous will live in faith all his life. Theologians have called this “the perseverance of the saints” (cf. Col. 1:22–23; Heb. 3:12–14).[1]

The Theme of the Epistle

Romans 1:16–17

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, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

In the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of Romans 1, we come to sentences that are the most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity. They are the heart of biblical religion.

The reason this is so is that they tell how a man or woman may become right with God. We are not right with God in ourselves. This is what the doctrine of original sin is all about. We are in rebellion against God; and if we are in rebellion against God, we cannot be right with him. On the contrary, we are to be judged by him. What is more, we are polluted by our sin. We are as filthy in God’s sight as the most disease infected, loathsome individual could be in ours, and in that state we must be banished from his presence forever when we die.

What is to be done? On our side, nothing can be done. Yet in these sentences Paul tells us that God has done something. In fact, he has done precisely what needs to be done. He has provided a righteousness that is exactly what we need. It is a divine righteousness, a perfect righteousness. And it is received, not by doing righteous things (which we can never do in sufficient quantity anyway), but by simple faith. It is received merely by believing what God tells us.

No One Righteous

In the next chapter, continuing our study of this very important section of the letter to the Roman church, I will show why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel. Here, however, I want to concentrate on the chief idea in these two verses, namely, that in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed and that this righteousness is received (and has always been received) by faith. The place to begin is with the fact that in ourselves we do not possess this righteousness.

There can be little objection to the statement that we do not possess true righteousness, because this is the point with which Paul begins his formal argument. That is, immediately after having stated his thesis in verses 16 and 17, Paul launches into a section extending from 1:18 to 3:20, in which he shows that far from being righteous before God, men and women are actually very corrupt and are all therefore naturally objects of God’s just wrath and condemnation.

I make the point in this way. Notice that in verse 17 (our text here), Paul says that “a righteousness from God is revealed.” Then notice that in 3:21, he says virtually the same thing once again: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” The words “is made known” mean “is revealed,” and the reference to “the Law and the Prophets” corresponds to Paul’s citation of a specific statement of the prophet Habakkuk in the earlier verse: “just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ ” So the full exposition of what Paul introduces in 1:17 begins only at 3:21.

So what occupies the intervening verses? They are a statement of the need for this righteousness, introduced by a parallel but deliberate contrast with these two statements. At the start of this section, instead of speaking of any revelation of righteousness, Paul declares: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18, italics mine).

What Paul says in Romans 1:18 through 3:20 embraces all persons. But he develops his thoughts progressively, moving from a description of those who are openly hostile to God and wicked to those who consider themselves to be either moral, and therefore acceptable to God on the basis of their own good works, or else religious, and therefore acceptable on the basis of their religious practices.

One thing is true of everyone. Left to ourselves, we use either our heathen lifestyle, our claims to moral superiority, or our religion to resist the true God. Paul says that certain facts about God have been revealed to all people in nature. But instead of allowing that revelation to point us to God and then attempting to seek him out as a result of it, we actually suppress the revelation God has given in order to continue in our own wicked ways. This is the real grounds of God’s just wrath against us—not that we have failed to do something that we could not do or refused to believe something that we did not even know about, but that we have rejected the knowledge we have in order to pursue wickedness. When he gets to the end of this section Paul is therefore quite right in concluding, quoting from many Old Testament texts:

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.”

“Their throats are open graves;

their tongues practice deceit.”

“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”

“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery mark their ways,

and the way of peace they do not know.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10–18

We may not like this description of ourselves (who would?), but it is God’s accurate assessment of our depraved lives and civilization.

A Righteousness from God

In all literature there is no portrait of the human race so realistic, grim, or hopeless as this summation of Paul’s. Yet it makes the wonder of the gospel all the more glorious, for it is against this background that “a righteousness from God” is made known.

We need to see several important things about it.

  1. This righteousness from God is the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1:17 and 3:21, Paul says that righteousness “comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” But it is surely right to add, in view of what Paul said in the opening section of this letter (and says elsewhere), that this is the very righteousness of Christ, which God gives to us. Righteousness is revealed in the gospel—Paul says so—but the gospel concerns Jesus Christ (1:2–3). So it is Christ who has this righteousness, and it is from him that we both learn about it and receive it.

Jesus possesses righteousness in two senses, both important. First, Jesus is intrinsically righteous. That is, being God, he is utterly holy and without sin. That is why he could say during the days of his flesh, “I always do what pleases him [that is, God]” (John 8:29b) or, as he said to his enemies on another occasion, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46a). His words left them speechless.

Jesus is also righteous in that he achieved a perfect righteousness by his obedience to the law of God while on earth. When John the Baptist resisted Jesus’ call for baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14–15). By saying that it was proper for him to be baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus showed that he intended to fulfill the demands of the law while he lived among us. And he did. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written:

He rendered a perfect obedience to the law; he kept it in every jot and tittle. He failed in no respect. He fulfilled God’s law completely, perfectly, and absolutely. Not only that! He has dealt with the penalty meted out by the law upon all sin and upon all sins. He took your guilt and mine upon himself, and he bore its punishment. The penalty of the law was meted out upon him, and so he has honored the law completely, positively and negatively, actively and passively. There is nothing further the law can demand; he has satisfied it all.

When Paul says that righteousness from God is revealed in the gospel, he means that the gospel shows how we can acquire the righteousness we need. But this does not exclude the truth that the existence and nature of this righteousness are also revealed to us in Christ’s person. In Christ we can see that righteousness truly exists and can be offered to us by God.

  1. God offers this righteousness of Jesus Christ freely, apart from any need to work for it on our part. This is the heart of the Good News, of course. For unless God were willing to give this righteousness to us and actually does give it, the mere existence of a perfect righteousness would not be good news at all. On the contrary, it would be very bad news, for it would increase our sense of condemnation.

It was the discovery of this truth that transformed Martin Luther and through him launched the Reformation. Luther was aware that Jesus exhibited a perfect righteousness and that this was a standard of character rightly demanded from all human beings by God. But Luther did not have this righteousness. In fact, the more he tried to achieve this righteousness, the more elusive it became. It was Luther’s very piety that created the problem. He wanted to be righteous. He wanted to please God. But the more he worked at pleasing God, the more he knew that pleasing God involved more than merely doing certain things and refusing to do others. He knew that pleasing God involved even the very attitudes in which he did or did not do these things. Basically he needed to love God, and he knew he did not love God. He actually hated God for making the standard of righteousness so impossible.

As I pointed out in the introductory chapter of this book, Luther wrote, “I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret anger against him.”

But then Luther discovered that he had misunderstood God’s intention in revealing the nature and existence of this righteousness. It was not revealed so that men and women like Luther might strive toward it and inevitably fail desperately, as Luther did. It was revealed as God’s free gift in Christ, so that those who came to know Christ might stop their fruitless striving and instead rest in him. They could rest in his atoning death on their behalf, since he took the punishment of their sins upon himself and paid for them fully so that their sins might never rise up to haunt them again. They could rest in righteousness, knowing that God had given it to them and that they could thereafter stand before God, not in their own self-righteousness, which is no righteousness at all, but in the very righteousness of Christ.

The term for the application of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner is “imputation.” It is like putting the infinite moral capital of the Lord Jesus Christ in our empty bank account. It is having the riches of heaven at our disposal. When Luther saw this, it was as if the doors of heaven had been opened and he was able to pass through “the true gate of Paradise.”

  1. Faith is the channel by which sinners receive Christ’s righteousness. Paul lived many centuries before the Reformation, but he seems to have anticipated the sixteenth-century battles over the role of faith in salvation by the way he emphasizes faith both in this initial statement of his thesis and in his fuller development of the role of faith in receiving the gospel in 3:21–31. In Romans 1:17, he speaks of “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith,’ ” quoting Habakkuk 2:4 (italics mine). In 3:21–31 he refers to “faith” eight times.

What is faith? Initially Luther thought of faith as a work and therefore grimly regarded it as something else to be attained. But faith is not a work. It is believing God. It is opening a hand to receive the righteousness of Christ that God offers.

Faith consists of three elements. First, it consists of knowledge. It is no mere attitude of mind; it involves content. We must have faith in “something.” In the case of salvation that content (and the object of our knowledge) is the revelation of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Second, faith consists of a heart response to the gospel. This is because faith is not assent to some principle that is true but nevertheless has little relationship to us. It involves the love of God for us in saving us through the death of Jesus Christ, his Son. Unless this touches our hearts and moves them, we do not really understand the gospel.

Finally, faith consists of commitment, commitment to Christ. At this point, Jesus becomes not merely a Savior in some abstract sense or even someone else’s Savior, but my Savior. Like Thomas, I now gladly confess him to be “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28, italics mine).

In an excellent little book entitled All of Grace, the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote, “Faith is not a blind thing; for faith begins with knowledge. It is not a speculative thing; for faith believes facts of which it is sure. It is not an unpractical, dreamy thing; for faith trusts, and stakes its destiny upon the truth of revelation.… Faith … is the eye which looks.… Faith is the hand which grasps … Faith is the mouth which feeds upon Christ.”

One person who read Romans 10:8 (“ ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart’ ”) exclaimed, “Give me a knife and a fork and a chance.” He had the idea. He was prepared to receive the gospel personally.

Another who had the idea was Count Zinzendorf. His great hymn about justification through the righteousness of Christ received by faith comes to us through the translation of John Wesley:

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in thy great day,

For who aught to my charge shall lay?

Fully absolved through these I am,

From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

O let the dead now hear thy voice;

Now bid thy banished ones rejoice;

Their beauty this, their glorious dress,

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.

It was by faith in the completed work of Christ and God’s gift of Christ’s righteousness to believing men and women that Zinzendorf expected to stand before God in the day of judgment and be accepted by him.

“Nothing in My Hands”

This was Paul’s expectation and experience, too. He tells of his experience of God’s grace in Philippians.

Paul had been an exceedingly moral man: “.… If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:4–6). But Paul learned to count his attainments as nothing in order to have Christ “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (v. 9). This is a vivid, personal statement of what he also declares at the beginning of Romans.

In Philippians, Paul uses a helpful metaphor, saying that before he met Christ his thoughts about religion involved something like a lifelong balance sheet showing assets and liabilities. He had thought that being saved meant having more in the column of assets than in the column of liabilities. And since he had considerable assets, he felt that he was very well off indeed.

Some assets he had inherited. Among them were the facts that he had been born into a Jewish family and had been circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day of life. He was neither a proselyte who had been circumcised later in life, nor an Ishmaelite who was circumcised when he was thirteen years of age. He was a pure-blooded Jew, having been born of two Jewish parents (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”). As an Israelite he was a member of God’s covenant people. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. Moreover, Paul had assets he had earned for himself. He was a Pharisee, the strictest and most faithful of the Jewish religious orders. He was a zealous Pharisee, proved by his persecution of the church. And, as far as the law was concerned, Paul reckoned himself to be blameless, for he had kept the law in all its particulars so far as he had understood it.

These were great assets from a human point of view. But the day came when God revealed his own righteousness to Paul in the person of Jesus Christ. When Paul saw Jesus he understood for the first time what real righteousness was. Moreover, he saw that what he had been calling righteousness, his own righteousness, was not righteousness at all but only filthy rags. It was no asset. It was actually a liability, because it had been keeping him from Jesus, where alone true righteousness could be found.

Mentally Paul moved his long list of cherished assets to the column of liabilities—for that is what they really were—and under assets he wrote “Jesus Christ alone.”

Augustus M. Toplady had it right in the hymn “Rock of Ages”:

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to thee for dress;

Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee.

When those who have been made alive by God turn from their own attempts at righteousness, which can only condemn them, and instead embrace the Lord Jesus Christ by saving faith, God declares their sins to have been punished in Christ and imputes his own perfect righteousness to their account.

Not Ashamed

Romans 1:16–17

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, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

At first glance it is an extraordinary thing that Paul should say that he is “not ashamed” of the gospel. For when we read that statement we ask, “But why should anybody be ashamed of the gospel? Why should the apostle even think that something so grand might be shameful?” Questions like that are not very deep or honest, since we have all been ashamed of the gospel at one time or another.

The reason is that the world is opposed to God’s gospel and ridicules it, and we are all far more attuned to the world than we imagine. The gospel was despised in Paul’s day. Robert Haldane has written accurately:

By the pagans it was branded as atheism, and by the Jews it was abhorred as subverting the law and tending to licentiousness, while both Jews and Gentiles united in denouncing the Christians as disturbers of the public peace, who, in their pride and presumption, separated themselves from the rest of mankind. Besides, a crucified Savior was to the one a stumbling-block, and to the other foolishness. This doctrine was everywhere spoken against, and the Christian fortitude of the apostle in acting on the avowal he here makes was as truly manifested in the calmness with which, for the name of the Lord Jesus, he confronted personal danger and even death itself. His courage was not more conspicuous when he was ready “not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem,” than when he was enabled to enter Athens or Rome without being moved by the prospect of all that scorn and derision which in these great cities awaited him.

Is the situation different in our day? It is true that today’s culture exhibits a certain veneer of religious tolerance, so that well-bred people are careful not to scorn Christians openly. But the world is still the world, and hostility to God is always present. If you have never been ashamed of the gospel, the probable reason, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones suggests, is not that you are “an exceptionally good Christian,” but rather that “your understanding of the Christian message has never been clear.”

Was Paul tempted to shame, as we are? Probably. We know that Timothy was, since Paul wrote him to tell him not to be (2 Tim. 1:8). However, in our text Paul writes that basically he was “not ashamed of the gospel,” and the reason is that “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, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ”

In this study, following the treatment of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I want to suggest eight reasons why we should not be ashamed of this gospel.

The Gospel Is “Good News”

The first reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is the meaning of the word gospel itself. It means “good news,” and no rational person should be ashamed of a desirable proclamation.

We can understand why one might hesitate to convey bad news, of course. We can imagine a policeman who must tell a father that his son has been arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s house and stealing her possessions. We can understand how he might be distressed at having to communicate this sad message. Or again, we can imagine how a doctor might be dismayed at having to tell a patient that tests have come out badly and that he or she does not have long to live, or how a person involved in some great moral lapse might be ashamed to confess it. But the gospel is not like this. It is the opposite. Instead of being bad news, it is good news about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is the best news imaginable.

The Way of Salvation

The second reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is that it is about “salvation.” And not just any salvation. It is about the saving of ourselves.

The background for this side of the Good News is that, left to ourselves, we are in desperate trouble. We are in trouble now because we are at odds with God, other people, and ourselves. We are also in trouble in regard to the future; for we are on a path of increasing frustration and despair, and at the end we must face God’s just wrath and condemnation. We are like swimmers drowning in a vast ocean of cold water or explorers sinking in a deep bog of quicksand. We are like astronauts lost in the black hostile void of outer space. We are like prisoners awaiting execution.

But there is good news! God has intervened to rescue us through the work of his divine Son, Jesus Christ. First, he has reconciled us to himself; Christ has died for us, bearing our sins in his own body on the cross. Second, he has reconciled us to others; we are now set free to love them as Jesus loved us. Third, he has reconciled us to ourselves; in Jesus Christ (and by the power of the Holy Spirit) we are now able to become what God has always meant for us to be.

We can say this in yet other ways. Salvation delivers us from the guilt, power, and pollution of sin. We are brought back into communication with God, from whom our sins had separated us. And we are given a marvelous destiny, which Paul elsewhere describes as “the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul expresses these truths somewhat comprehensively when he writes that “Christ Jesus … has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, because it was about a real deliverance—from sin and its power—and about reconciliation to God.

God’s Way of Salvation

The third reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it is God’s way of salvation and not man’s way. How could Paul be proud of something that has its roots in the abilities of sinful men and women or is bounded by mere human ideas? The world does not lack such ideas. There are countless schemes for salvation, countless self-help programs. But these are all foolish and inadequate. What is needed is a way of salvation that comes not from man, but from God! That is what we have in Christianity! Christianity is God’s reaching out to save perishing men and women, not sinners reaching out to seize God.

Paul speaks about this in two major ways, contrasting God’s way of salvation with our own attempts to keep the law, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, with our attempts to know God by mere human wisdom.

As to the law, he says, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). This means that, although we could not please God by keeping the law’s demands, God enables us to please him, first, by condemning sin in us through the work of Jesus Christ and, then, by enabling us to live upright lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to wisdom, Paul writes, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

The Power of God

This leads to the fourth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, the matter he chiefly emphasizes in our text: The gospel is powerful. That is, it is not only good news, not only a matter of salvation, not only a way of salvation from God; it is also powerful enough to accomplish God’s purpose, which is to save us from sin’s pollution.

It is important to understand what is involved here, for it is easy to misconstrue Paul’s teaching. When Paul says that “the gospel … is the power of God for salvation,” he is not saying that the gospel is about God’s power, as if it were merely pointing us to a power beyond our own. Nor is Paul saying that the gospel is the source of a power we can get and use to save ourselves. Paul’s statement is not that the gospel is about God’s power or even a channel through which that power operates, but rather that the gospel is itself that power. That is, the gospel is powerful; it is the means by which God accomplishes salvation in those who are being saved.

Since Paul puts it this way, we are right to agree with John Calvin when he emphasizes that the gospel mentioned here is not merely the work done by God in Jesus Christ or the revelation to us of that work, but the actual “preaching” of the gospel “by word of mouth.” He means that it is in the actual preaching of the gospel that the power of God is demonstrated in the saving of men and women.

In the previous section I quoted what the King James Version calls “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1:21), and since that is Paul’s own phrase, we can see it as proof that Paul was himself aware of how foolish the proclamation of the Christian message is if considered only from a human point of view. Some years ago I had the task of talking about “The Foolishness of Preaching” as one message of seven in a weekend conference on reformed theology. My address came after a break for lunch in the middle of what was a very long Saturday, and I began by saying that if there was anything more foolish than the foolishness of preaching, it was preaching about the foolishness of preaching after lunch on a day during which the listeners had already heard a number of other very distinguished preachers. It was a way of capturing what every preacher feels at one time or another as he rises to proclaim a message that to the natural mind is utter folly and that is as incapable of doing good in the hearers as preaching a message of moral reformation to the corpses in a cemetery—unless God works.

But that is just the point! God does work through the preaching of this gospel—not preaching for its own sake, but the faithful proclamation of God’s work of salvation for sinful men and women in Jesus Christ.

Let me say this another way since it is so important. We read in the first chapter of Acts that when the Lord Jesus Christ dispatched his disciples to the world with his gospel, he told them: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). Earlier they had been asking about the kingdom of God, no doubt thinking of an earthly, political kingdom, which they highly valued and hoped for. But Jesus’ reply pointed them to something far greater. His was a spiritual kingdom—not spiritual in the sense of being less than real, but a kingdom to be established in power by the very Spirit of God—and they were to be witnesses for him. Moreover, as they witnessed, the Holy Spirit, which was to come upon them, would bless their proclamation and lead many to faith.

And so it happened. Three thousand believed at Pentecost. Thousands more believed on other occasions.

So also today. The world does not understand this divine working, but it is nevertheless true that the most important thing happening in the world at any given time is the preaching of the gospel. For there the Spirit of God is at work. There men and women are delivered from the bondage of sin and set free spiritually. Lives are transformed—and it is all by God’s power. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The thing to grasp is that the apostle is saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is of God’s mighty working. It is God himself doing this thing—not simply telling us about it: doing it, and doing it in this way, through the gospel.”

A Gospel for Everyone

The fifth reason why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel is that it is a gospel for everyone—“everyone who believes.” It is “first for the Jew” and then also “for the Gentile.”

Paul’s phrase “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” has led readers to think that he was saying something like “to the Jew above the Gentile” or “to the Jew simply because he is a Jew and therefore of greater importance than other people.” But, of course, this is not what Paul intends. In this text Paul means exactly the same thing Jesus meant when he told the woman of Samaria that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Both were speaking chronologically. Both meant that in the systematic disclosure of the gospel the Jews had occupied a first and important place. This was because, as Paul says later in Romans, theirs was “the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Jesus Christ …” (Rom. 9:3–5). No one can fully understand the gospel if he or she neglects this historical preparation for it.

But this does not mean that Paul is setting the Jew above the Gentile in this text or, as some would desire by contrast, that he is setting the Gentile above the Jew. On the contrary, Paul’s point is that the gospel is for Gentile and Jew alike. It is for everybody.

Why? Because it is the power of God, and God is no respecter of persons. If the gospel were of human power only, it would be limited by human interests and abilities. It would be for some and not others. It would be for the strong but not for the weak, or the weak but not for the strong. It would be for the intelligent but not the foolish, or the foolish but not the wise. It would be for the noble or the well-bred or the sensitive or the poor or the rich or whatever, to the exclusion of those who do not fit the categories. But this is not the way it is. The gospel is for everyone. John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, italics mine). At Pentecost Peter declared, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32). Indeed, the Bible ends on this note: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take of the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). (I have added italics to these passages to emphasize this important point.)

How can one be ashamed of a gospel which offers hope to the vilest, most desperate of men, as well as to the most respectable person? How can we be ashamed of anything so gloriously universal.

Salvation Revealed to Sinners

The sixth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that God has revealed this way of salvation to us. The gospel would be wonderful even if God had not revealed it. But, of course, if he had not revealed it, we would not know of it and would be living with the same dreary outlook on life as the unsaved. But the gospel is revealed. Now we not only know about the Good News but are also enabled to proclaim God’s revelation.

And there is this, too: When Paul says that the gospel of God “is revealed,” he is saying that it is only by revelation that we can know it. It is not something we could ever have figured out for ourselves. How could we have invented such a thing? When human beings invent religion they either invent something that makes them self-righteous, imagining that they can save themselves by their own good works or wisdom—or they invent something that excuses their behavior so they can commit the evil they desire. In other words, they become either legalists or antinomians. The gospel produces neither. It does not produce legalists, because salvation is by the accomplishment of Christ, not the accomplishments of human beings.

Christians must always sing: “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to thy cross I cling.” But at the same time, simply because they have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and have his Spirit within them, Christians inevitably strive for and actually achieve a level of practical righteousness of which the world cannot even dream.

A Righteousness from God

The seventh reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is the one we considered most fully in the previous chapter, namely, that it concerns a righteousness from God, which is what we need. In ourselves we are not the least bit righteous. On the contrary, we are corrupted by sin and are in rebellion against God. To be saved from wrath we need a righteousness that is of God’s own nature, a righteousness that comes from God and fully satisfies God’s demands. This is what we have! It is why Paul can begin his exposition of the Good News in chapter 3 by declaring, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (v. 21). (As previously mentioned, this verse is a repetition of the thesis presented first in Romans 1:17.)

By Faith from First to Last

The eighth and final reason why the apostle Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that the means by which this glorious gift becomes ours is faith, which means that salvation is accessible to “everyone who believes.”

What does Paul mean when he writes, ek pisteōs eis pistin (literally, “from faith to faith”)? Does he mean, as the New International Version seems to imply, “by faith entirely” (that is, “by faith from first to last”)? Does he mean “from the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament” or, which may be almost the same thing, “from the faith of the Jew to the faith of the Gentile”? Does he mean “from weak faith to stronger faith,” the view apparently of John Calvin? In my opinion, the quotation from Habakkuk throws light on how the words ek pistẽs are to be taken. They mean “by faith”; that is, they concern “a righteousness that is by faith.” If this is so, if this is how the first “faith” should be taken, then, the meaning of the phrase is that the righteousness that is by faith (the first “faith”) is revealed to the perceiving faith of the believer (the second “faith”). This means that the gospel is revealed to you and is for you—if you will have it.

Martin Luther’s Text

Romans 1:17

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

In the year 1920 an English preacher by the name of Frank W. Boreham published a book of sermons on great Bible texts, in each case linking his text to the spiritual history of a great Christian man or woman. He called his book Texts That Made History. There was David Livingstone’s text: Matthew 28:20 (“Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age”). There was John Wesley’s text: Zechariah 3:2 (“Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”). There were twenty-three sermons in this book, and Boreham published four more similar books in his lifetime.

Of all the texts that are associated with the lives of great Christians, none is so clearly one man’s text or so obviously a driving, molding force in that man’s life as Roman 1:17. And, of course, the man whose text it was is Martin Luther.

I propose that we study Romans 1:17 from the standpoint of Luther’s life. Already we have seen that Romans 1:16–17 are the theme verses of this important Bible book. We have studied them from two perspectives. The first study focused on the chief idea: that there is a righteousness from God, which God freely offers human beings and which alone is the basis of their justification before him. It is received by faith. The second study worked through these verses in detail, showing eight reasons why Paul could say (and all true believers today can continue to say) that they are not ashamed of God’s gospel. In this study we want to see the outworking of that gospel in the life of just one man, Martin Luther.

In the Convent at Erfurt

Martin Luther began his academic life by studying law, which was his father’s desire for him. But although he excelled in his studies and gave every promise of becoming successful in his profession, Luther was troubled in soul and greatly agitated at the thought that one day he would have to meet God and give an account before him. In his boyhood days he had looked at the frowning face of Jesus in the stained-glass window of the parish church at Mansfeld and had trembled. When friends died, as during his college days two of his closest friends did, Luther trembled more. One day he would die—he knew not when—and he knew that Jesus would judge him.

On August 17, 1505, Luther suddenly left the university and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. He was twenty-one years old, and he entered the convent, as he later said, not to study theology but to save his soul.

In those days in the monastic orders there were ways by which the seeking soul was directed to find God, and Luther, with the determination and force that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to the Augustinian plan. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial tasks. Above all he adhered to the sacrament of penance, confessing even the most trivial sins, for hours on end, until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to cease confession until he had committed some sin worth confessing. Luther’s piety gained him a reputation of being the most exemplary of monks. Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony:

I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortification even to death, by means of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors.

Still, Luther found no peace through these exercises.

The monkish wisdom of the day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works. “But what works?” thought Luther. “What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?”

In Luther’s agony of soul, God sent him a wise spiritual father by the name of John Staupitz, the vicar-general of the congregation. Staupitz tried to uncover Luther’s difficulties. “Why are you so sad, brother Martin?” Staupitz asked one day.

“I do not know what will become of me,” replied Luther with a deep sigh.

“More than a thousand times have I sworn to our holy God to live piously, and I have never kept my vows,” said Staupitz. “Now I swear no longer, for I know that I cannot keep my solemn promises. If God will not be merciful towards me for the love of Christ and grant me a happy departure when I must quit this world, I shall never with the aid of all my vows and all my good works stand before him. I must perish.”

The thought of divine justice terrified Luther, and he opened up his fears to the vicar-general.

Staupitz knew where he himself had found peace and pointed it out to the young man: “Why do you torment yourself with all these speculations and these high thoughts?… Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that he has shed for you; it is there that the grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, throw yourself into the Redeemer’s arms. Trust in him—in the righteousness of his life—in the atonement of his death. Do not shrink back. God is not angry with you; it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the Son of God.”

But how could Luther do that? Where could he hear the Son of God speak to him as Staupitz said he would? “In the Bible,” said the vicar-general. It was thus that Luther, who had only first seen a Bible in his college days shortly before entering the cloister, began to study Scripture.

He studied Romans, and as he pondered over the words of our text the truth began to dawn on him. The righteousness we need in order to stand before the holy God is not a righteousness we can attain. In fact, it is not human righteousness at all. It is divine righteousness, and it becomes ours as a result of God’s free giving. Our part is merely to receive it by faith and to live by faith in God’s promise. Guided by this new light, Luther began to compare Scripture with Scripture, and as he did he found that the passages of the Bible that formerly alarmed him now brought comfort.

In his sermon on Luther’s text, Boreham describes a famous painting that represents Luther at this stage of his pilgrimage. The setting is early morning in the convent library at Erfurt, and the artist shows Luther as a young monk in his early twenties, poring over a copy of the Bible from which a bit of broken chain is hanging. The dawn is stealing through the lattice, illuminating both the open Bible and the face of its eager reader. On the page the young monk is so carefully studying are the words: “The just shall live by faith.”

The Road to Rome

In 1510, five years after he had become a monk and two years after he had begun to teach the Bible at the new University of Wittenberg, Luther was sent by his order to Rome.

On the way, while being entertained at the Benedictine monastery at Bologna, Luther fell dangerously ill and relapsed into the gloomy dejection over spiritual matters that was so natural to him. “To die thus, far from Germany, in a foreign land—what a sad fate!” D’Aubigné wrote, “… the distress of mind that he had felt at Erfurt returned with renewed force. The sense of his sinfulness troubled him; the prospect of God’s judgment filled him once more with dread. But at the very moment that these terrors had reached their highest pitch, the words of St. Paul, ‘The just shall live by faith,’ recurred forcibly to his memory and enlightened his soul like a ray from heaven.” Luther was learning to live by faith, which was what the text was teaching. Comforted and eventually restored to health, he resumed his journey across the hot Italian plains to Rome.

“Thou Holy Rome, Thrice Holy”

Luther had been sent to Rome on church business. But, in spite of this, he approached the ancient imperial city as a pilgrim. When he first caught sight of Rome on his way south he raised his hands in ecstasy, exclaiming, “I greet thee, thou holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs.” When he arrived, he began his rounds of the relics, shrines, and churches. He listened to the superstitious tales that were told him. At one chapel, when told of the benefits of saying Mass there, he thought that he could almost wish his parents were dead, because he could then have assured them against purgatory by his actions.

Yet Rome was not the center of light and piety Luther had imagined. At this time, the Mass—at which the body and blood of Jesus were thought to be offered up by the priests as a sacrifice for sins—was the center of Luther’s devotion, and he often said Mass at Rome. Luther performed the ceremony with the solemnity and dignity it seemed to him to require. But not the Roman priests! They laughed at the simplicity of the rustic German monk. Once, while he was repeating one Mass, the priests at an adjoining altar rushed through seven of them, calling out in Latin to Luther, “Quick, quick, send our Lady back her Son.” On another occasion, Luther had only reached the gospel portion of the Mass when the priest administering beside him terminated his. “Passa, passa,” he cried to Luther. “Have done with it at once.”

Luther was invited to meetings of distinguished ecclesiastics. There the priests often ridiculed and mocked Christian rites. Laughing and with apparent pride, they told how, when they were standing at the altar repeating the words that were to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, they said instead (no doubt with solemn intonation), “Panis es, et panis manebis; vinum es, et vinum manebis” (“Bread you are, and bread you will remain; wine you are, and wine you will remain”). Luther could hardly believe his ears. Later he wrote, “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus, they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there is a Hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.’ ” He concluded, “The nearer we approach Rome, the greater number of bad Christians we meet with.”

Then there occurred the famous incident told many years later by Luther’s son, Dr. Paul Luther, and preserved in a manuscript in the library of Rudolfstadt. In the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome there is a set of medieval stone stairs said to have originally been the stairs leading up to Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, once trod upon by the Lord. For this reason they were called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs.” It was the custom for pilgrims, like Luther, to ascend these steps on their knees, praying as they went. At certain intervals there were stains said to have been caused by the bleeding wounds of Christ. The worshiper would bend over and kiss these steps, praying a long time before ascending painfully to the next ones. Remission of years of punishment in purgatory was promised to all who would perform this pious exercise.

Luther began as the others had. But, as he ascended the staircase, the words of our text came forcefully to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.”

They seemed to echo over and over again, growing louder with each repetition: “The just shall live by faith,” “The just shall live by faith.” But Luther was not living by faith. He was living by fear. The old superstitious doctrines and the new biblical theology wrestled within him.

“By fear,” said Luther.

By faith!” said St. Paul.

“By fear,” said the scholastic fathers of medieval Catholicism.

By faith!” said the Scriptures.

“By fear,” said those who agonized beside him on the staircase.

By faith!” said God the Father.

At last Luther rose in amazement from the steps up which he had been dragging himself and shuddered at his superstition and folly. Now he realized that God had saved him by the righteousness of Christ, received by faith; he was to exercise that faith, receive that righteousness, and live by trusting God. He had not been doing it. Slowly he turned on Pilate’s staircase and returned to the bottom. He went back to Wittenberg, and in time, as Paul Luther said, “He took ‘The just shall live by faith’ as the foundation of all his doctrine.”

This was the real beginning of the Reformation, for the reformation of Luther necessarily preceded the reformation of Christendom. The later began on October 31, 1517, with the posting of his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

J. H. Merle D’Aubigné, the great nineteenth-century historian of the Reformation, wrote:

This powerful text had a mysterious influence on the life of Luther. It was a creative sentence both for the reformer and for the Reformation. It was in these words God then said, “Let there be light! and there was light.” … When Luther rose from his knees on Pilate’s Staircase, in agitation and amazement at those words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of that same metropolis—Truth, till then a melancholy captive, fettered in the church, rose also to fall no more.

“Here I Stand”

When Luther rose from his knees on the steps of the Scala Sancta, the high point of his long career—his refusal to recant his faith before the imperial diet at Worms—was still eleven years away. But Luther was already prepared for this challenge. He would be ready to defend his position, because he now saw that a man or woman is not enabled to stand before God by his or her own accomplishments, however devout, still less by the pronouncements of ecclesiastical councils or popes, however vigorously enforced, but by the grace and power of Almighty God alone. And if a person can stand before God by grace, he can certainly stand before men.

Luther was summoned before the diet by the newly elected emperor, Charles V. But it was really the Roman See that had summoned him, and the champions of Rome were present to secure his condemnation. Upon his arrival at the town hall assembly room at four o’clock on the afternoon of April 17, Luther was asked to acknowledge as his writings a large stack of books that had been gathered and placed in the room. He was also asked whether he would retract their contents, which called for reform of abuses rampant in the church, asserted the right of the individual Christian to be emancipated from priestly bondage, and reaffirmed the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith.

Luther asked that the titles might be read out. Then he responded, “Most gracious emperor! Gracious princes and lords! His imperial majesty has asked me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge as mine the books that have just been named. I cannot deny them. As to the second, seeing that it is a question which concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection.… For this reason I entreat your imperial majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.”

It was a proper request in so grave a matter. Besides, by taking reasonable time to reflect on his answer, Luther would give stronger proof of the firmness of his stand when he made it. There was debate concerning this request, but at last Luther was given twenty-four hours to consider his response.

When he appeared the next day, the demand was the same: “Will you defend your books as a whole, or are you ready to disavow some of them?”

Luther replied by making distinctions between his writings, trying to draw the council into debate and thus have an opportunity to present the true gospel. Some of his books treated the Christian faith in language acceptable to all men. To repudiate these would be a denial of Jesus Christ. A second category attacked the errors and tyranny of the papacy. To deny these would lend additional strength to this tyranny, and thus be a sin against the German people. A third class of books concerned individuals and their teachings. Here Luther confessed that he may have spoken harshly or unwisely. But if so, it was necessary for his adversaries to bear witness of the evil done. Luther said he would be the first to throw his books into the fire if it could be proved that he had erred in these or any others of his writings.

“But you have not answered the question put to you,” said the moderator. “Will you, or will you not, retract?”

Upon this, Luther replied without hesitation: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning—unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”

Then looking around at those who held his life in their hands, Luther said: “Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” Thus did the German monk utter the words that still thrill our hearts after four and a half centuries.

The Master of All Doctrines

Later in life Luther was to write many things about the doctrine of justification by faith, which he had learned from Romans 1:17. He would call it “the chief article from which all our other doctrines have flowed.” He called it “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.” He said, “If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.” He argued, “It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”

What a heritage! What a rebuke against the weak state of present-day Christianity!

If justification by faith is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, our contemporary declines are no doubt due to our failure to understand, appreciate, and live by this doctrine. The church of our day does not stand tall before the world. It bows to it. Christians are not fearless before ridicule. We flee from it. Is the reason not that we have never truly learned to stand before God in his righteousness? Is it not because we have never learned the truth: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b)? The church will never be strong unless it is united around faithful men and women who firmly hold this conviction.[2]

16. I am not indeed ashamed, &c. This is an anticipation of an objection; for he declares beforehand, that he cared not for the taunts of the ungodly; and he thus provides a way for himself, by which he proceeds to pronounce an eulogy on the value of the gospel, that it might not appear contemptible to the Romans. He indeed intimates that it was contemptible in the eyes of the world; and he does this by saying, that he was not ashamed of it. And thus he prepares them for bearing the reproach of the cross of Christ, lest they should esteem the gospel of less value by finding it exposed to the scoffs and reproaches of the ungodly; and, on the other hand, he shows how valuable it was to the faithful. If, in the first place, the power of God ought to be extolled by us, that power shines forth in the gospel; if, again, the goodness of God deserves to be sought and loved by us, the gospel is a display of his goodness. It ought then to be reverenced and honoured, since veneration is due to God’s power; and as it avails to our salvation, it ought to be loved by us.

But observe how much Paul ascribes to the ministry of the word, when he testifies that God thereby puts forth his power to save; for he speaks not here of any secret revelation, but of vocal preaching. It hence follows, that those as it were wilfully despise the power of God, and drive away from them his delivering hand, who withdraw themselves from the hearing of the word.

At the same time, as he works not effectually in all, but only where the Spirit, the inward Teacher, illuminates the heart, he subjoins, To every one who believeth. The gospel is indeed offered to all for their salvation, but the power of it appears not everywhere: and that it is the savour of death to the ungodly, does not proceed from what it is, but from their own wickedness. By setting forth but one salvation he cuts off every other trust. When men withdraw themselves from this one salvation, they find in the gospel a sure proof of their own ruin. Since then the gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference, it is rightly called the doctrine of salvation: for Christ is there offered, whose peculiar office is to save that which was lost; and those who refuse to be saved by him, shall find him a Judge. But everywhere in Scripture the word salvation is simply set in opposition to the word destruction: and hence we must observe, when it is mentioned, what the subject of the discourse is. Since then the gospel delivers from ruin and the curse of endless death, its salvation is eternal life.

First to the Jew and then to the Greek. Under the word Greek, he includes all the Gentiles, as it is evident from the comparison that is made; for the two clauses comprehend all mankind. And it is probable that he chose especially this nation to designate other nations, because, in the first place, it was admitted, next to the Jews, into a participation of the gospel covenant; and, secondly, because the Greeks, on account of their vicinity, and the celebrity of their language, were more known to the Jews. It is then a mode of speaking, a part being taken for the whole, by which he connects the Gentiles universally with the Jews, as participators of the gospel: nor does he thrust the Jews from their own eminence and dignity, since they were the first partakers of God’s promise and calling. He then reserves for them their prerogative; but he immediately joins the Gentiles, though in the second place, as being partakers with them.

17. For the righteousness of God, &c. This is an explanation and a confirmation of the preceding clause—that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. For if we seek salvation, that is, life with God, righteousness must be first sought, by which being reconciled to him, we may, through him being propitious to us, obtain that life which consists only in his favour; for, in order to be loved by God, we must first become righteous, since he regards unrighteousness with hatred. He therefore intimates, that we cannot obtain salvation otherwise than from the gospel, since nowhere else does God reveal to us his righteousness, which alone delivers us from perdition. Now this righteousness, which is the groundwork of our salvation, is revealed in the gospel: hence the gospel is said to be the power of God unto salvation. Thus he reasons from the cause to the effect.

Notice further, how extraordinary and valuable a treasure does God bestow on us through the gospel, even the communication of his own righteousness. I take the righteousness of God to mean, that which is approved before his tribunal; as that, on the contrary, is usually called the righteousness of men, which is by men counted and supposed to be righteousness, though it be only vapour. Paul, however, I doubt not, alludes to the many prophecies in which the Spirit makes known everywhere the righteousness of God in the future kingdom of Christ. Some explain it as the righteousness which is freely given us by God: and I indeed confess that the words will bear this sense; for God justifies us by the gospel, and thus saves us: yet the former view seems to me more suitable, though it is not what I make much of. Of greater moment is what some think, that this righteousness does not only consist in the free remission of sins, but also, in part, includes the grace of regeneration. But I consider, that we are restored to life because God freely reconciles us to himself, as we shall hereafter show in its proper place.

But instead of the expression he used before, “to every one who believeth,” he says now, from faith; for righteousness is offered by the gospel, and is received by faith. And he adds, to faith: for as our faith makes progress, and as it advances in knowledge, so the righteousness of God increases in us at the same time, and the possession of it is in a manner confirmed. When at first we taste the gospel, we indeed see God’s smiling countenance turned towards us, but at a distance: the more the knowledge of true religion grows in us, by coming as it were nearer, we behold God’s favour more clearly and more familiarly. What some think, that there is here an implied comparison between the Old and New Testament, is more refined than well-founded; for Paul does not here compare the Fathers who lived under the law with us, but points out the daily progress that is made by every one of the faithful.

As it is written, &c. By the authority of the Prophet Habakkuk he proves the righteousness of faith; for he, predicting the overthrow of the proud, adds this—that the life of the righteous consists in faith. Now we live not before God, except through righteousness: it then follows, that our righteousness is obtained by faith; and the verb being future, designates the real perpetuity of that life of which he speaks; as though he had said,—that it would not be momentary, but continue for ever. For even the ungodly swell with the false notion of having life; but when they say, “Peace and safety,” a sudden destruction comes upon them, (1 Thess. 5:3.) It is therefore a shadow, which endures only for a moment. Faith alone is that which secures the perpetuity of life; and whence is this, except that it leads us to God, and makes our life to depend on him? For Paul would not have aptly quoted this testimony had not the meaning of the Prophet been, that we then only stand, when by faith we recumb on God: and he has not certainly ascribed life to the faith of the godly, but in as far as they, having renounced the arrogance of the world, resign themselves to the protection of God alone.

He does not indeed professedly handle this subject; and hence he makes no mention of gratuitous justification: but it is sufficiently evident from the nature of faith, that this testimony is rightly applied to the present subject. Besides, we necessarily gather from his reasoning, that there is a mutual connection between faith and the gospel: for as the just is said to live by faith, he concludes that this life is received by the gospel.

We have now the principal point or the main hinge of the first part of this Epistle,—that we are justified by faith through the mercy of God alone. We have not this, indeed, as yet distinctly expressed by Paul; but from his own words it will hereafter be made very clear—that the righteousness, which is grounded on faith, depends entirely on the mercy of God.[3]

16 Having confessed his fervent desire to preach the gospel at Rome, Paul goes on to give the reason for his zeal to preach the gospel. He has no sense of reserve about his mission. “I am not ashamed” is rhetorical understatement (litotes) pointing to Paul’s confidence in the gospel. He does not in any way consider his task unworthy or one that will prove to be illusory. He is ready to challenge the philosophies and religions in Rome that vie for attention, because he knows, on the basis of his experience in the East, that God’s power is at work in the proclamation of the good news and that it is able to transform lives. The gospel is nothing less that “the power of God” (cf. 1:1), foretold in the prophets (v. 2), concerning the Son of God, Jesus Christ (v. 3). “Power” here refers to the intrinsic efficacy of the gospel. It offers something desperately needed by humanity and not to be found anywhere else—a “righteousness from God” (v. 17).

The linkage between power and salvation is striking. Judaism was prone to think of the law as power, but this is not affirmed in Scripture. As for salvation, the OT is clear in its teaching that, whether it is conceived of physically as deliverance (Ex 14:13) or spiritually (Ps 51:12), it comes from the Lord. This is maintained in the NT as well and is affirmed in Paul’s statement that the gospel is “the power of God” for salvation. So when the apostle permits himself to say that he himself saves some (1 Co 9:22), it is only in the sense that he is Christ’s representative who is able to proclaim the way of salvation to others.

“Salvation” (sōtēria, GK 5401) is a broad concept. It includes the forgiveness of sins but involves much more, because its basic meaning is “soundness” or “wholeness.” It promises the restoration of all that sin has marred or destroyed. It is the general term that unites in itself the particular aspects of truth suggested by “justification,” “reconciliation,” “sanctification,” and “redemption.” But its efficacy depends on a person’s willingness to receive the message. Salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” That is, salvation is by “faith.” (In Greek, “believe” [pisteuō, GK 4409] and “faith” [pistis, GK 4411] are from the same root.) This sweeping declaration concerning “everyone who believes” ties in with the previous statement (concerning Greeks and non-Greeks) and now includes both the Jew and the Gentile. The Jew receives “first” mention. This does not mean that every Jew must be evangelized before the gospel can be presented to Gentiles; it does mean that the gospel is in the first instance the fulfillment of the hope of Israel (cf. Ac 28:20) and must therefore be proclaimed first to the Jews. In this era of fulfillment, just as Jesus came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24; 10:6), so now the gospel concerning Jesus must first go to the Jews. Thus to them was given the first opportunity to receive him, both during his ministry (Jn 1:11) and in the Christian era (Ac 1:8; 3:26). Paul himself followed this pattern (13:45–46). The theological priority of Israel rests on the reality of God’s covenantal faithfulness. The Gentiles are latecomers (Eph 2:11–13) and, as Paul will declare later on, foreign branches grafted into the olive tree (Ro 11:17).

17 Next the apostle passes to an explanation of his statement that the gospel means salvation for those who receive it by faith. The reason given is that this salvation discloses (lit.) “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē [GK 1466] theou). Paul depends on the OT for this language (Isa 46:12–13; cf. 61:10). Note how in the verses just mentioned “righteousness” and “salvation” are nearly equivalent terms. “In the Hebrew tradition, early and late, God’s righteousness is the way he acts, and notably the way he acts in maintaining the covenant” (Ziesler, 186). Such an idea was quite foreign to Greek thought. Clearly, the character of God is involved in the sense that what he does and provides must be in keeping with his nature (cf. Ro 3:26). But just as clearly, the expression must go beyond this to include the activity of God whereby he extends salvation to his people. The gospel would not be the good news if it simply disclosed the righteousness of God understood as an abstract description of God’s character. Such a message would scarcely demand faith. In view of humanity’s sinful state, it could only create fear. But salvation as God provides it and offers it is fully in keeping with his righteous character. God saves because he is faithful to his covenantal promises.

“The righteousness of God” thus refers to God’s saving activity. The significance of this may be seen by looking at Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:9, where he contrasts his pre-Christian state, in which he had a righteousness based on his activity of observing the law, with his present situation, in which he rests on a righteousness which is of (from) God, based on faith. God’s righteousness in the present context, while it has an implied reference to his character, stresses divine provision. What this entails will be unfolded in due course. In earlier letters Paul had already taught that Christ was the medium for the bringing of righteousness from God to sinful humanity (1 Co 1:30; 2 Co 5:21).

Somewhat baffling is the twofold reference to faith: “from faith to faith” (ek pisteōs eis pistin; cf. NIV, “by faith from first to last”). Are these two prepositional phrases to be joined to the verb “revealed,” or should they be taken with God’s righteousness as indicating how that righteousness is to be received? The position in the sentence may be said to favor the former alternative, but the resultant sense is obscure. Furthermore, when Paul restates the theme of his letter (3:21–22) in such a way as to take account of the intervening material, he mentions God’s righteousness as manifested (corresponding to “revealed” in 1:17), then repeats the word “righteousness” and characterizes it as a righteousness “through faith” (dia pisteōs) and for all who believe. These phrases are probably to be understood as a recapitulation of what has been said in 1:17.

Assuming, then, that we are to connect the statement about faith with God’s righteousness, we must still inquire into the distinctives of the two phrases involving faith. Among the numerous suggestions are these: “from the faith of the preacher to the faith of the hearer”; “from OT faith to NT faith” (based on the quotation immediately following); “entirely from faith”; and “from faithfulness [God’s] to faith [human],” as Barth, 41, interprets it. These various renderings understand “from” as a point of departure. This would be entirely legitimate if the preposition was apo, but it is ek, which Paul uses repeatedly with faith when indicating the basis on which God grants justification (3:26; 5:1; Gal 2:16) or righteousness (Ro 9:30; 10:6)—a fact that incidentally shows how readily the term “righteousness” can take on the force of “justification.” The really troublesome element here is the second phrase, “to [eis] faith.” Perhaps what it conveys is the necessity of issuing a reminder to the believer that justifying faith is only the beginning of Christian life. The same attitude of faith must govern believers in their continuing experience as children of God.

Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 is of very great importance. Bruce, 78, rightly says that it “may be called the ‘text’ of this Epistle; what follows is in large measure an exposition of the prophet’s words.” The order of the Greek words presents some ambiguity. Are we to understand this text as saying, “The righteous will live by faith,” or, “The one who is just by means of faith shall live”? That is, do the words “by faith” (ek pisteōs), which occur in the Greek in the middle of the sentence, modify the preceding words (“the righteous,” ho dikaios, GK 1465) or do they modify the verb that follows (“will live,” zēsetai, GK 2409)? If it is the former, the meaning amounts to, “a person who is righteous by faith—that person will live.” If the latter, the meaning amounts to, “a righteous person—that person will live in accordance with his or her faith [= will live faithfully].” Since the apostle quotes the same passage in Galatians 3:11 to show that one is not justified by law but rather by faith, it is probable that he intends the reference in the same way here. It would also be consonant with the argument that Paul is about to pursue. Since the quotation is used in Romans at the beginning of his argument, where he confronts the problem of the sinner’s getting right with God, the wording that fits most closely the movement of thought should be chosen. At this point Paul is not concerned with how the justified person lives but how the sinner can be considered just (“righteous”) in the sight of God, i.e., how the sinner can “live” in the sense of having “salvation.” Righteousness as a matter of ethical conduct is reserved for later treatment (chs. 6–8). Ethical righteousness depends on right relation to God, so the latter merits priority of treatment.

Paul presents a unique form of Habakkuk 2:4, omitting the personal pronouns found both in the Hebrew (= “his” faith[-fulness]) and LXX (= “my” [i.e., kyrios faith[-fulness]). Since the word pistis (GK 4411) can mean either “faith” or “faithfulness,” the ambiguity of the text is increased. Paul’s understanding of the text is closer to the form represented in the LXX. (For a different understanding of the text, see Heb 10:37.) Does Paul’s form of the text indicate his knowledge of the Hebrew and LXX forms and a desire to steer between the two? We know that he would endorse the truth that the Christian is not only justified by faith but is also expected to live by faith in order to please God. Without question, such an emphasis has its place. But only when the initial problem of the sinner’s plight has been met does Paul turn to ethical paranaesis. The liberty involved in using a quotation in a way somewhat different from its original setting is made possible by a Jewish hermeneutic governed by a prior conviction of fulfillment (pesher, “this is that”). This practice was also common in Judaism before Paul’s time, as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran community, for example, applied Habakkuk 2:4 to their own situation by an interpretative elaboration. “Its interpretation concerns all observing the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will free from punishment on account of their deeds and of their loyalty to the Teacher of Righteousness” (1QpHab 8.1). Here the passage is made to do service on behalf of the special type of piety, grounded in the study of the Torah, which distinguished the Qumran community.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 49–57). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 103–126). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 61–66). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] 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. 41–44). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Romans 1:8-15 Commentary Series

True Spiritual Leadership

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (1:8–15)

In seminary I learned a great deal from the books I read, the lectures I heard, and the papers I wrote. But I learned most from the attitudes and actions of the godly men under whom I studied. While around them, I discovered their true priorities, their true convictions, their true devotion to our Lord.

In the opening verses of his letter to the Romans, Paul also set himself forth for his readers to see before he attempted to teach them some deeper truths of the gospel. He opened his heart and said, in effect, “Before I show you my theology, I am going to show you myself.”

People serve the Lord from many motives. Some serve out of legalistic effort, as a means of earning salvation and God’s favor. Some serve the Lord for fear that, if they do not, they will incur His disfavor and perhaps even lose their salvation. Some, like Diotrophes (3 John 9), serve because of the prestige and esteem that leadership often brings. Some serve in order to gain preeminent ecclesiastical positions and the power to lord it over those under their care. Some serve for appearance’s sake, in order to be considered righteous by fellow church members and by the world. Some serve because of peer pressure to conform to certain human standards of religious and moral behavior. Children are often forced into religious activities by their parents, and they sometimes continue those activities into adult life only because of parental intimidation or perhaps from mere habit. Some people are even zealous in Christian work because of the financial gain it can produce.

But those motives for service are merely external, and no matter how orthodox or helpful to other people the service might be, unless it is done out of a sincere desire to please and glorify God, it is not spiritual nor acceptable to Him (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31). It is, of course, possible for a person to begin Christian service out of genuine devotion to God and later fall into an occasion or even a habit of performing it mechanically, merely from a sense of necessity. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, missionaries and all other Christian workers can carelessly leave their first love and fall into a rut of superficial activity that is performed in the Lord’s name but is not done in His power or for His glory.

Even when the Lord is served from a right motive and in His power, there always lingers near a ready temptation to resentment and self-pity when one’s work is not appreciated by fellow Christians and perhaps goes completely unnoticed.

The apostle Paul was doubtlessly assailed by many temptations from Satan to give up his ministry when he was opposed, or to give up on a difficult, fleshly, self-centered, and worldly church such as the one at Corinth. But Paul was greatly used of the Lord because, by God’s grace and provision, he always kept his motives pure. Because his single purpose was to please God, the displeasure or disregard of other people, even of those he was serving, could not deter his work or lead him into bitterness and self-pity.

In his opening words to the believers at Rome, Paul tells of his sincere spiritual motives in wanting to minister to them. With warmth, affection, and sensitivity that permeate the entire letter, he assures them of his genuine devotion to God and his genuine love for them. Although Paul had not personally founded or even visited the church at Rome, he carried the heartfelt passion of Christ for their spiritual welfare and an eager desire to develop their spiritual and personal friendship. The letter to Rome reveals that Paul not only had the zeal of a prophet, the mind of a teacher, and the determination of an apostle, but also the heart of a shepherd.

When they first received Paul’s letter, the believers in Rome probably wondered why this great apostle whom most of them did not know would bother to write them such a long and profound letter. They also may have wondered why, if he cared so much for them, he had not yet paid them a visit. In verses 8–15 of chapter 1, Paul gives the answers to both of those questions. He wrote them because he cared deeply about their spiritual maturity, and he had not yet visited them because he had thus far been prevented. In these few verses the apostle lays bare his heart concerning them.

The key that unlocks the intent in this passage is the phrase “God, whom I serve in my spirit” (v. 9a). Paul had been raised and educated in Judaism. He had himself been a Pharisee and was well acquainted with the other Jewish religious set, the Sadducees, the scribes, the priests, and the elders. He knew that, with few exceptions, those leaders served God in the flesh and were motivated by self-interest. Their worship and service were mechanical, routine, external, and superficial. Paul also was well acquainted with the Gentile world and knew that pagan religious worship and service were likewise external, superficial, and completely motivated by self-interest.

Referring to such religion, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24). Worship that is true and acceptable to God does not involve a particular location, ritual, or any man-made activities or forms.

During the years before his salvation, Paul himself had worshiped and served God in an external, self-interested way (Phil. 3:4–7). But now that he belonged to Christ and had Christ’s own Spirit indwelling him, he worshiped and served Him in spirit and in truth, with his whole being. Paul was now motivated by a genuine, inner desire to serve God for God’s sake rather than his own, in God’s revealed way rather than his own, and in God’s power rather than his own. He was no longer motivated by self-interest or by peer pressure and no longer focused on Jewish religious tradition or even on self-effort to keep God’s law. He was not interested in trying to please other men, even himself, but only God (1 Cor. 4:1–5). The focus of his life and his ministry was to glorify God by proclaiming the saving grace of the gospel. He lived in conformity to the divine standard he proclaimed to the Ephesians, serving God “not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). As he reminded the eiders from that church, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me” (Acts 20:33–34).

Paul did not serve because it was “fun” and self-pleasing. “For even Christ did not please Himself,” he points out later in the epistle; “but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me’ ” (Rom. 15:3; cf. Ps. 69:9). Nor did Paul serve in order to gain glory and honor from men. “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). In a later letter to the church at Corinth he declared, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5; cf. 1 Cor. 9:19).

In verses 8–15, Paul’s words suggest nine marks of true spiritual service: a thankful spirit (v. 8), a concerned spirit (v. 9–10a), a willing and submissive spirit (v. 10b), a loving spirit (v. 11), a humble spirit (v. 12), a fruitful spirit (v. 13), an obedient spirit (v. 14), an eager spirit (v. 15). A tenth, a bold spirit, is mentioned in v. 16a.

A Thankful Spirit

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. (1:8)

The first mark of true spiritual service, which Paul had in abundance, is thankfulness. He was grateful for what God had done for and through him, but he was equally grateful for what God had done in and through other believers. He perhaps did not thank the Roman believers themselves, lest it be considered flattery. He said, rather, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you.

Paul’s thankfulness was intimate, first of all because of his spiritual closeness to God. I thank my God, he declared. No pagan would have made such a statement, nor would have most Jews referred to God with a personal pronoun. For Paul, God was not a theological abstraction but a beloved Savior and close friend. As he testifies in the following verse, he served God in his spirit, from the depth of his heart and mind.

Paul gave thanks through Jesus Christ, the one eternal Mediator between God and man. “No one comes to the Father, but through Me,” Jesus said (John 14:6), and believers in Him have the privilege of calling Almighty God, my God. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is because we have been given access to the Father through Jesus Christ that we always can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16), and can say, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

Paul’s thankfulness was also intimate because of his spiritual intimacy with fellow believers, even to such as those in Rome, most of whom he did not personally know. I thank my God … for you all, that is, for all the believers in the church at Rome. His gratitude was impartial and all-encompassing, making no distinctions.

In every epistle but one, Paul expresses gratitude for those to whom he writes. The exception was the letter to the church in Galatia, which had defected from the true gospel of grace to a works system of righteousness and was worshiping and serving in the flesh because of the influence of the Judaizers. It was not that the other churches were perfect, which is apparent since Paul wrote most of his letters to correct wrong doctrine or unholy living. But even where the need for instruction and correction was great, he found something in those churches for which he could be thankful.

Paul wrote the letter to the Romans from Corinth, and at the time the Jews there were plotting to kill him (Acts 20:3). He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he knew imprisonment and possibly death awaited him. Yet he was still filled with thanksgiving.

Some years later, as he was prisoner in his own house in Rome while awaiting an audience before Caesar, Paul was still thankful. While there, he wrote four epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon), commonly called the prison epistles. In each of those letters he gives thanks for the believers to whom he writes (Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; Philem. 4). During his second Roman imprisonment, he may have spent time in the wretched Mamertine prison. If so, we can be sure he was thankful even there, although the city sewage system ran through the prison. I was told on a visit there that when the cells were filled to capacity, the sewage gates were opened and all the inmates would drown in the filthy water, making way for a new batch of prisoners. But Paul’s thankfulness did not rise and fall based on his earthly circumstances but on the richness of his fellowship with his Lord.

The specific reason for Paul’s thankfulness for the Roman Christians was their deep faith, which was being proclaimed throughout the whole world. From secular history we learn that in a.d. 49 Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, thinking they were all followers of someone named Chrestus (a variant spelling of Christ). Apparently the testimony of Jewish Christians had so incited the nonbelieving Jews that the turmoil threatened the peace of the whole city. The believers had, then, a powerful testimony not only in the city, but throughout the whole world. What a commendation!

By faith Paul was not referring to the initial trust in Christ that brings salvation but to the persevering trust that brings spiritual strength and growth. Faith like that also may bring persecution. Believers in Rome lived in the lion’s den, as it were, yet they lived out their faith with integrity and credibility. Some churches are famous because of their pastor, their architecture, their stained glass windows, or their size or wealth. The church in Rome was famous because of its faith. It was a fellowship of genuinely redeemed saints through whom the Lord Jesus Christ manifested His life and power, so that their character was known everywhere.

A thankful heart for those to whom one ministers is essential to true spiritual service. The Christian who is trying to serve God’s people, however needy they may be, without gratitude in his heart for what the Lord has done for them will find his service lacking joy. Paul could usually find a cause for thanks so that he could honor the Lord for what had been done already and hope for what God would use him to do.

Superficial believers are seldom satisfied and therefore seldom thankful. Because they focus on their own appetites for things of the world, they are more often resentful than thankful. A thankless heart is a selfish, self-centered, legalistic heart. Paul had a thankful heart because he continually focused on what God was doing in his own life, in the lives of other faithful believers, and in the advancement of His kingdom throughout the world.

A Concerned Spirit

For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers (1:9–10a)

The second mark of true spiritual service that exudes here, and that Paul exemplified in his life, is that of a concerned spirit. Although he was grateful for what had been and was being done in the Lord’s work, he was also deeply concerned about balancing those off with what yet needed to be done.

It is here that Paul presents the key phrase of verses 8–15, God, whom I serve in my spirit. Latreuō (to serve) is always used in the New Testament of religious service, and is therefore sometimes translated “worship.” Except for two references to the service of pagan idols, the term is used in reference to the worship and service of the true God. The greatest worship a believer can offer to God is devoted, pure, heart-felt ministry.

Godly service calls for total, unreserved commitment. Paul served God with everything he had, beginning with his spirit, that is, flowing out of a deep desire in his soul. In chapter 12 of this letter, he appeals to all believers, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (v. 1). Such spiritual devotion is accomplished by refusing to “be conformed to this world” and by being “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2).

Paul used a similar statement about true worship in writing to the church at Philippi: “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). When his shipmates had given up all hope of surviving the fierce storm on the Mediterranean Sea as they sailed to Rome, the apostle assured them, “I urge you to keep up your courage, for there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:22–25).

Paul could declare to Timothy, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience” (2 Tim. 1:3). Because he served God from a sincere heart, he also served with a clear conscience. Paul’s worship and service were inextricably related. His worship was an act of service, and his service was an act of worship.

Because his young friend had appeared to stumble spiritually, Paul admonished Timothy: “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). A few verses later he also warned: “Flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (v. 22).

Paul’s primary service to God was the preaching of the gospel of His Son, the ministry to which the Lord had called him and to which he gave every breath of his life. But as he goes on to explain, that service to God included deep, personal concern for everyone who believed the gospel, whether they heard it from him or from someone else. He was not concerned for the saints in Rome because they were “his converts,” which they were not, but because he and they were brothers who had the same spiritual Father through trusting in the same divine Son as their Savior.

As he mentions several times in the opening of the epistle (1:10–11, 15), and reiterates near the closing (15:14, 22), he was writing to the Roman church somewhat as an outsider and stranger, humanly speaking. That fact makes his intense concern for the believers there even more remarkable and touching.

Perhaps because most of them did not know him personally, Paul here calls the Lord as witness to his sincere love and concern for his spiritual brothers and sisters at Rome. He knew that God, who knows the real motive and sincerity of every heart (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5), would testify as to how unceasingly he made mention of them always in his prayers. He was not redundant by using both unceasingly and always but simply gave a negative and positive expression of his concern.

Although he rejoiced in and gave thanks for their great faithfulness, he knew that apart from God’s continuing provision even strong faith falters. Those saints were therefore always in his prayers, never taken off his prayer list. Although for different reasons, the faithful saint needs the prayer support of fellow believers as much as the saint who is unfaithful.

Paul assured the saints of Thessalonica that “we pray for you always that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power; in order that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:11–12). In his earlier letter the apostle admonished them to have devotion to unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17). He likewise counseled the Ephesian believers to “pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).

Near the end of his Romans letter Paul pleads: “I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30). He did not ask prayer for himself for selfish reasons but for the sake of the ministry, that he might “be delivered from those who [were] disobedient in Judea, and that [his] service for Jerusalem [might] prove acceptable to the saints; so that [he might] come to [Rome] in joy by the will of God” (vv. 31–32).

Although Paul does not state the particular petitions he made on behalf of the Roman Christians, we can safely assume they were similar to those he mentions in other letters. “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name,” he wrote the Ephesians, “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19).

That is praying in depth! Paul prayed that those saints would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit, that Christ would be at home in their hearts, that they would be filled with God’s own love, and that they would be made perfect in His truth and likeness.

Paul prayed that believers in Philippi would abound in love “still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that [they would] approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ,” demonstrating that they were “filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–11).

He assured the Colossian church: “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience” (Col. 1:9–11).

The content of all Paul’s prayers was spiritual. He prayed for individual believers, but he also offered many prayers for groups of believers. He prayed that their hearts would be knit with the heart of God, that their knowledge of His Word would be made complete, and that their obedience to His will would be made perfect. The depth and intensity of prayer measures the depth and intensity of concern.

A willing and Submissive Spirit

making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. (1:10b)

Paul not only prayed for the spiritual well-being of the Roman church but was eager to be used by God as an instrument to help answer that prayer according to His divine will. The church has always been full of people who are quick to criticize, but seems short of those who are willing to be used by God to solve the problems they are concerned about.

Many Christians are much more willing to give money to an outreach ministry than they are to witness themselves. In his book The Gospel Blimp (Elgin, Ill: David C. Cook, 1983), Joe Bayly tells the imagined story of a man who hired a blimp to bombard his neighborhood with gospel tracts. The point of the book, and the popular movie made from it, was that some believers will go to great extremes to avoid personally confronting others with the gospel.

A man once came up to me after a worship service and suggested that the church provide $25,000 to create a sophisticated telephone answering service that would give a gospel message to callers. Like the man in The Gospel Blimp story, this man wanted to use his scheme primarily to reach an unbelieving neighbor. I therefore suggested, “Why don’t you just go over and tell him the gospel yourself?”

It is much easier, and therefore more attractive to the flesh, to pray for others to be used by the Lord than to pray that He use us. But like Isaiah, when Paul heard the Lord’s call for service or saw a spiritual need, he said, “Here am I. Send me” (Isa. 6:8). There is, of course, an important place for praying for others in the Lord’s service. But the true measure of our concern for His work is our willingness for Him to use us.

Paul had been making request to God for a long time that he could visit the church in Rome in order to minister to them and be ministered to by them (vv. 11–12). Apparently he hoped to make the journey soon, saying, perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.

Paul’s eagerness to serve God was always directed by the will of God. He did not serve in the direction of his own desires and insight but according to the will of the One he served. When the prophet Agabus dramatically predicted the danger that awaited Paul in Jerusalem, the apostle’s friends begged him not to go. But “Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Upon hearing those words, Luke and the others also submitted to God’s sovereignty, saying, ‘The will of the Lord be done!’ ” (Acts 21:11–14).

Some people ask, “If God is going to sovereignly accomplish what He plans to do anyway, what is the purpose of praying?” Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse designed an analogy to illustrate the relationship of a believer’s prayers to God’s sovereignty.

We will suppose the case of a man who loves violin music. He has the means to buy for himself a very fine violin, and he also purchases the very best radio obtainable. He builds up a library of the great musical scores, so that he is able to take any piece that is announced on the radio, put it on his music stand, and play along with the orchestra. The announcer says that Mr. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra are going to play Beethoven’s seventh symphony. The man in his home puts that symphony on his stand and tunes his violin with what he hears coming from the orchestra. The music that comes from the radio we might call foreordained. Ormandy is going to follow the score just as Beethoven wrote it. The man in his living room starts to scratch away at the first violin part. He misses beats, he loses his place and finds it again, he breaks a string, and stops to fix it. The music goes on and on. He finds his place again and plays on after his fashion to the end of the symphony. The announcer names the next work that is to be played and the fiddler puts that number on his rack. Day after week after month after year, he finds pleasure in scraping his fiddle along with the violins of the great orchestras. Their music is determined in advance. What he must do is to learn to play in their tempo, in their key, and to follow the score as it has been written in advance. If he decides that he wants to play Yankee Doodle when the orchestra is in the midst of a Brahm’s number, there’s going to be dissonance and discord in the man’s house but not in the Academy of Music. After some years of this the man may be a rather creditable violin player and may have learned to submit himself utterly to the scores that are written and follow the program as played. Harmony and joy come from the submission and cooperation.

So it is with the plan of God. It is rolling toward us, unfolding day by day, as He has planned it before the foundation of the world. There are those who fight against it and who must ultimately be cast into outer darkness because He will not have in His heaven whose who proudly resist Him. This cannot be tolerated any more than the authorities would permit a man to bring his own violin into the Academy of Music and start to play Shostakovich when the program called for Bach. The score of God’s plan is set forth in the Bible. In the measure that I learn it, submit myself to it, and seek to live in accordance with all that is therein set forth, I shall find myself in joy and in harmony with God and His plans. If I set myself to fight against it, or disagree with that which comes forth, there can be no peace in my heart and life. If in my heart I seek to play a tune that is not the melody the Lord has for me, there can be nothing but dissonance. Prayer is learning to play the tune that the eternal plan of God calls for and to do that which is in harmony with the will of the Eternal Composer and the Author of all that is true harmony in life and living. (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], pp. 122–23. Used by permission.)

The popular practice of demanding things from God and expecting Him to meet those demands is perverted and heretical, an attempt to sway God’s perfect and holy will to one’s own imperfect and sinful will. Paul sought the advancement of God’s kingdom and glory through God’s own will, not his own.

Self-styled messiahs are always megalomaniacs. They have grandiose schemes for winning the world for Christ. They always think big, and their plans seldom show evidence of being limited by God’s plans, which, from a human perspective, sometimes seem small and insignificant. Jesus’ ministry did not focus on converting the great leaders of His day or evangelizing the great cities. He chose twelve ordinary men to train as His apostles, and most of His teaching took place in insignificant, often isolated, parts of Palestine. He did not raise large sums of money or attempt to use the influence of great men to His advantage. His sole purpose was to do His Father’s will in His Father’s way and in His Father’s time. That is the highest goal for us, as well.

A Loving Spirit

For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; (1:11)

Another mark of spiritual service is a loving spirit. Paul wanted to visit the Roman believers in order to serve them lovingly in God’s name. He did not want to go as a tourist to see the famous Appian Way or the Forum or the Coliseum or the chariot races. He wanted to go to Rome to give of himself, not to entertain or indulge himself.

The Christian who looks on his service to the Lord as a means of receiving appreciation and personal satisfaction is inevitably subject to disappointment and self-pity. But the one who focuses on giving never has such problems. Paul’s ministry goal was to “present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor,” he said, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:28–29).

The apostle’s loving spirit is reflected beautifully in his first letter to Thessalonica. “We proved to be gentle among you,” he wrote, “as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:7–9).

The foremost characteristic of genuine love is self-less giving, and it was out of such love that Paul assured the church in Corinth, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15). Willingness to spend was willingness to use all his resources and energy in their behalf, and willingness to be spent was willingness to die for them if necessary.

Paul was burdened for the physical welfare of the Roman believers, but his overriding concern was for their spiritual well-being, and therefore his principal purpose for longing to see them was that he might impart to them some spiritual gift.

The gift Paul wanted to impart was spiritual not only in the sense of being in the spiritual realm but in the sense that it had its source in the Holy Spirit. Because he was writing to believers, Paul was not speaking about the free gift of salvation through Christ about which he speaks in 5:15–16. Nor could he have been speaking about the gifts he discusses in chapter 12, because those gifts are bestowed directly by the Spirit Himself, not through a human instrument. He must therefore have been using the term spiritual gift in its broadest sense, referring to any kind of divinely-empowered spiritual benefit he could bring to the Roman Christians by preaching, teaching, exhorting, comforting, praying, guiding, and disciplining.

Whatever particular blessings the apostle had in mind, they were not of the superficial, self-centered sort that many church members crave today. He was not interested in tickling their ears or satisfying their religious curiosity.

Paul wanted to impart the spiritual blessings in order for the Roman believers to be established. He wanted those spiritual brothers and sisters “to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

A young woman once told me that she had been teaching a Sunday school class of young girls for some while and thought that she loved them dearly. But one Saturday afternoon at her college football game the Lord convicted her about the superficiality of her love for them. Because of her busy Saturdays, she seldom spent more than a few minutes preparing her lesson for the next day. From that day on she determined to make whatever sacrifice and give whatever time necessary to give those girls something of eternal significance. That was the kind of committed, self-sacrificing love Paul had for the church at Rome.

A Humble Spirit

that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. (1:12)

Lest his readers think that he had in mind a one-way blessing, Paul assures them that a visit would be to his benefit as well as theirs. Although he was a highly-gifted and greatly-used apostle, having received revealed truth directly from God, Paul never thought that he was above being spiritually edified by other believers.

The truly thankful, concerned, willing, submissive, and loving spirit is also a humble spirit. The person with such a spirit never has a feeling of spiritual superiority and never lords it over those he serves in Christ’s name.

Commenting on this passage in Romans, John Calvin said of Paul, “Note how modestly he expresses what he feels by not refusing to seek strengthening from inexperienced beginners. He means what he says, too, for there is none so void of gifts in the Church of Christ who cannot in some measure contribute to our spiritual progress. Ill will and pride, however, prevent our deriving such benefit from one another” (John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], p. 24).

Peter warned elders not to lord it over those given to their care but rather to be examples to them. In doing so, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [they would] receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:3–4). He then went on to advise both older and younger men to clothe themselves “with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (v. 5).

Paul, the greatest theologian who ever lived, was also one of the most humble men of all. He was blessed beyond measure, yet he had no spiritual pride or intellectual arrogance. Because he had not attained spiritual perfection but genuinely pursued it (cf. Phil. 3:12–14), he was eager to be spiritually helped by all the believers in the Roman church, young as well as old, mature as well as immature.

It is unfortunate not only that many learned and gifted leaders in the church think they are above learning from or being helped by younger and less-experienced believers but also unfortunate that less-experienced believers often feel they have nothing to offer their leaders.

When he was about to board a ship to India to begin missionary service there, some of William Carey’s friends asked if he really wanted to go through with his plans. Expressing his great desire for their support in prayer, he is said to have replied, “I will go down [into the pit itself] if you will hold the rope” (S. Pearce Carey, William Carey [London: The Carey Press, 1934], pp. 117–18).

A Fruitful Spirit

And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. (1:13)

Paul frequently used a phrase such as I do not want you to be unaware as a means of calling attention to something of great importance he was about to say. He used it to introduce his teaching about such things as the mystery of God’s calling Gentiles to salvation (Rom. 11:25), spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1), and the second coming (1 Thess. 4:13). Here he uses it to introduce his determined plan to visit the saints at Rome. Often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far), he assures his readers. As far as his own plans were concerned, he would have come to them long beforehand had he not been prevented from doing so.

His intent was not to make a social call but to obtain some fruit among the believers in Rome, even as among the rest of the Gentiles to whom he ministered.

Paul’s ministry was an unending quest for spiritual fruit. His preaching, teaching, and writing were not ends in themselves. The purpose of all true ministry for God is to bear fruit in His name and with His power and for His glory. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you,” Jesus declared to His disciples, “and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16).

In regard to spiritual life, the Bible uses the term fruit in three ways. In one way, it is used as a metaphor for the attitudes that characterize the Spirit-led believer. This nine-fold “fruit of the Spirit,” Paul tells us, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).

In a second way, spiritual fruit refers to action. “Now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God,” the apostle declares, “you derive your benefit [lit., ‘fruit’], resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:22), that is, holy living. The active fruit of a Christian’s lips is praise (Heb. 13:15), and the active fruit of his hands is giving (Phil. 4:16–17; “profit” is literally “fruit”).

In a third way, spiritual fruit involves addition, the increase of converts to Christ and the increase of their spiritual growth in Him. Paul spoke of Epaenetus as being “the first convert [lit., first-fruit] to Christ from Asia” (Rom. 16:5).

Among the Romans, the fruit Paul longed for was of the third kind, addition. It included both new converts and maturing converts. They were spiritual fruit in the broadest sense of being the product of the gospel’s power in men’s lives, both to save and to sanctify. The apostle wanted to be used to help the Roman church grow through new converts and grow in sanctification, which includes growth in service to Christ. When, some years later, he wrote to the Philippian church from Rome, he was able to give greetings even from believers within “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22), believers he may have been instrumental in bringing to Christ.

As already noted, in the name of the Lord’s work some people strive for prestige or acceptance or money or crowds or influence. But a Christian who serves from the heart and whose spiritual service is genuine strives only to be used of the Lord to bear fruit for Him. The Christian who settles for less is one who serves only externally.

Nothing is more encouraging to pastors, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and other Christian workers than to see spiritual results in the lives of those to whom they minister. Nothing is more deeply rewarding than the lasting joy of leading others to Christ or helping them grow in the Lord.

An Obedient Spirit

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. (1:14)

Paul continues to talk about his attitudes and reasons for ministry, explaining that he did not preach and teach the gospel because of personal reasons or because the calling seemed attractive, but because he was under obligation. “I am under compulsion,” he said to the Corinthians; “for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me” (1 Cor. 9:16–17).

When the Lord called him to salvation and to apostleship, Paul was doing anything but promoting the gospel but was rather bent on destroying it at all costs. He seems to be saying to the Romans, in effect, “Don’t thank me for wanting to minister to you. Although I love you and sincerely want to visit you, I was sovereignly appointed to this ministry long before I had a personal desire for it” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16ff.).

Every sincere pastor and Christian worker knows there are times when ministry is its own reward, when study, preparation, teaching, and shepherding are exhilarating in themselves. There are other times, however, when the work does not seem very attractive, and yet you still study, prepare, teach, and shepherd because you are under obligation to God and to those you are serving. Christ is our Lord and we are His servants; and it is a poor servant who serves only when he feels like it.

Paul was under obligation in at least two ways. First, he was under obligation to God on behalf of the Gentiles. Because God had appointed him as a unique apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5; Acts 9:15), he was under divine obligation to minister the gospel to them.

Second, he had an obligation, or debt, to the Roman believers directly, because of their spiritual need. That is the kind of obligation a person has to someone whose house is on fire or who is drowning. When someone is in great danger and we are able to help, we are automatically and immediately under obligation to do what we can to save him. Because unbelieving Gentiles, like unbelieving Jews, face spiritual death, Paul was obligated to help rescue them through the gospel.

To Greeks and barbarians and to the wise and to the foolish seem to be parallel phrases, Greeks representing the wise and barbarians representing the foolish. The Greeks of that day included people from many lands who were educated in Greek learning and trained in Greek culture. They were highly sophisticated and were often looked upon as being on a higher level than others. They certainly looked on themselves in that way. The Greek language was thought to be the language of the gods, and Greek philosophy was thought to be little less than divine.

The term barbarians, on the other hand, was frequently used to designate those who were not hellenized, that is, not steeped in Greek learning and culture. The word is onomatopoeic, having been derived from the repetition of the sound “bar.” To a cultured Greek, other languages sounded like so much gibberish and were mimicked by saying “bar, bar, bar, bar.” In its narrowest sense, barbarians referred to the uncultured, uncouth, and uneducated masses, but in its wider sense it was used of anyone who was non-Greek.

Paul was therefore expressing his responsibility to the educated and the uneducated, the sophisticated and the simple, the privileged and the underprivileged. Like the Lord he served (1 Pet. 1:17), Paul was no respecter of persons. The gospel is the great equalizer, because every human being is equally lost without it and equally saved by it.

The first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself as Messiah was an adulterous woman who had a number of husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband. Not only that, but she was a Samaritan, a member of a race greatly despised by Jews. Yet Jesus drew her to Himself in loving compassion, and she was used to bring many of her fellow Samaritans to faith in the Messiah (see John 4:7–42).

An Eager Spirit

Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (1:15)

Paul’s external obligation to minister did not preclude his internal desire to fulfill that obligation. He not only was willing but eager to preach the gospel to believers in Rome.

He was as determined to preach … in Rome as he was to go to Jerusalem, although he knew great danger awaited him there. “And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:22–23). In his spirit he was compelled to go because that was God’s will for him. Therefore he said, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24). Paul knew that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), that “to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).

Paul had the same concern for the Roman believers as for those in Colossae, to whom he wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24).

Life had but one value for Paul: to do God’s work. He was consumed by an eager desire to serve God, which included serving others in His name. That absolute commitment was shared by Epaphroditus, who “came close to death for the work of Christ” (Phil. 2:30). Such godly servants are like racehorses in the gate or sprinters at the starting blocks. They cannot wait to get on with the race of serving Christ.

A final characteristic of spiritual service, a bold spirit, is seen in the following verse, which will be studied in more detail in the next chapter. Paul declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16). He knew that Rome was a volatile place and that Christians there had already experienced persecution. He knew that the capital city of the empire was steeped in immorality and paganism, including emperor worship. He knew that most Romans would despise him and that many probably would do him harm. Yet he was boldly eager to go there, for his Lord’s sake and for the sake of the Lord’s people.[1]

A Reputation Worth Having

Romans 1:8

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.

In the well-known Shakespearean speech “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” the melancholy Lord Jaques speaks of a soldier as one “seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7). In this speech “reputation” is depicted as worthless, unimportant. How different in Othello! Othello, who is also a soldier but who acted foolishly and tragically, says, “I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial!” (Act II, Scene 3).

How are we to think of reputation? Is it a fragile bubble, or is it immortal? Is it worth having, or is it better for us not even to be concerned with such matters? The answer is that it depends on what we have a reputation for.

In the first chapter of Romans, in a section that is the second, informal introduction to his letter (vv. 8–15), the apostle Paul speaks about a reputation that the Christians at Rome had acquired, and the important point is that he thanks God for it. Their reputation was for faith, and what Paul tells us is that their faith was being spoken about all over the world. This does not mean that every individual in every remote hamlet of the globe had heard of the faith of the Roman Christians, of course, but it does mean that their faith was becoming widely known—no doubt because other Christians were talking about it. “Do you know that there is a group of believers in Rome?” they were asking. “Have you heard how strong their faith is, how faithfully they are trying to serve Jesus Christ in that wicked city?” Since Paul begins his comment by thanking God for this reputation, it is apparent that however worthless some worldly reputations of some worldly persons may be, this reputation at least was worth having.

Why is a reputation for faith worth having? The text suggests four reasons.

A Genuine Faith

The first reason that the reputation of the Christians at Rome was worth having is that the faith on which it was based was genuine. It was a true faith. This is an important place to begin, because there is much so-called faith that is nonbiblical faith and is therefore a flawed and invalid basis for any reputation.

In some people’s minds, faith is thought of chiefly as a subjective religious feeling, entirely divorced from God’s written revelation. I once talked with a young man who thought of faith in this way. When I had asked him if he was a Christian, he said he was. But as we talked I soon discovered that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection, his sacrificial death for our sin, and many other cardinal Christian doctrines. When I asked the young man how he could reject doctrines central to Christian belief and still call himself a Christian, he replied that he did not know how to answer that question but that nevertheless, deep in his heart, he believed he was a Christian. Clearly this was no true faith. It was only a certain variable outlook on life based on his feelings.

Another substitute for true faith is credulity. This is the attitude of people who will accept something as true only because they strongly wish it to be true. Sometimes a faith like this is fixed upon a miraculous cure for some terminal disease, like congenital heart failure, AIDS, or cancer. But credulity does not make a cure happen. Wishful thinking is not genuine faith.

A third false faith is optimism. Norman Vincent Peale has popularized this substitute faith through his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. He suggests that we collect strong New Testament texts about faith, memorize them, let them sink down into our subconscious, and then recall them and recite them whenever we find faith in ourselves wavering. “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23). “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). Peale says, “According to your faith in yourself, according to your faith in your job, according to your faith in God, this far will you get and no further.”

In this statement, however, faith in yourself, faith in your job, and faith in God are all apparently the same thing, and what this means is that the object of one’s faith is irrelevant. John Stott challenges this distortion accurately: “He [Peale] recommends as part of his ‘worry-breaking formula’ that the first thing every morning before we get up we should say out loud ‘I believe’ three times, but he does not tell us in what we are so confidently and repeatedly to affirm our belief. The last words of his book are simply ‘so believe and live successfully.’ But believe what? Believe whom? To Dr. Peale faith is really another word for self-confidence, for a largely ungrounded optimism.” There is some value in a positive outlook on life, of course, just as there is some value in a positive self-image. But this is not the same thing as biblical faith, and it is not the faith for which the apostle Paul thanked God on behalf of the Roman Christians.

Why do I say that the faith of the believers at Rome was a genuine faith in contrast to these other, mistaken views of faith? There are two reasons. First, their faith was in Jesus Christ and in the gospel, which centers in him. Surely this is unmistakable from the context. In the first seven verses of this letter Paul has spoken at length of the gospel, defining it as the gospel “he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son [Jesus Christ]” and concluding that it had been Paul’s task “to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (vv. 2, 3, 5). Then Paul praises God for the faith of the Roman Christians, and it is evident that it is precisely that kind of faith he has in mind. Their reputation for faith was worth having because theirs was a true faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and our Savior. As far as salvation is concerned, all other “faiths” are worthless. They will save no one.

Second, this is a faith that God himself brought into being and not something that welled up unaided in the heart of mere human beings. This is why Paul begins by thanking God for these Christians and not by praising them for their commitment. If faith were a human achievement, then Paul should have praised the Roman Christians. He should have said, “First, I thank you for believing in Jesus Christ” or “I praise you for your faith.” But Paul does not do this. Faith is worked in us by God as a result of the new birth. Therefore, Paul praises God, not man, for the Roman Christians.

Robert Haldane wrote that in thanking God for the faith of those to whom he is writing “Paul … thus acknowledges God as the author of the Gospel, not only on account of his causing it to be preached to them, but because he had actually given them grace to believe.”

Calvin said of this verse, “Faith is a gift of God.”

This is the point to ask whether your faith is like that. Not faith in some nebulous subjective experience or something that you are able to work up by yourself, but a faith worked in you by God, as a result of which you have believed on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as your Savior. If your faith is like that, then yours is a reputation worth having, because it will bring praise to God himself, who is the author of that faith.

A Contagious Faith

The second reason why the reputation for faith that the Christians at Rome had was worth having is that it was a contagious faith. I mean by this that it was a faith not merely heard of and talked about throughout the known world, but that it was also a faith picked up by and communicated to others. Because of this faith, the Roman church grew and the gospel of the Roman congregation spread.

I think this is suggested by verse 17, even though I know the phrase I am referring to can be interpreted in two ways. In Greek the verse contains a repetition of the word faith in a phrase that literally reads “from faith to faith” (ek pisteōs eis pistin). This can be understood, as the New International Version apparently does understand it, as meaning “by faith from first to last.” But it can also mean—and a more literal translation suggests it does mean—“from the faith of one who has believed in Christ to another who comes to believe as a result of the first Christian’s testimony.”

As I say, the phrase “from faith to faith” does not necessarily mean this, since both translations are possible. But I think it does, and whether or not this is the correct meaning, there is no doubt that this is the way the gospel spread in the first Christian centuries, undoubtedly (at least in part) from the strategically located and growing church in the capital city of the Roman empire.

And the church had no modern media at its disposal to “get the message out”! There were no Christian magazines, no inspirational books, no television preachers. How do you suppose these early believers succeeded, as we know they did, without the tools of modern communication? D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has the answer:

A revival never needs to be advertised; it always advertises itself.… Read the history of the church. When revival breaks out in a little group, it does not matter how small, the news spreads and curiosity is awakened and people come and say, ‘What is this? Can we partake in this? How can we get hold of this?’ Man does not need to advertise it; it becomes known; it spreads throughout the whole world. It had happened here. This is revival! This is Pentecost! This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the news had spread like wildfire in that ancient world with its poor means of communication, and its absence and lack of advertising media. Isn’t it time we began to think in New Testament terms?

If we think in New Testament terms, we will be concerned with both the quality of our faith and with its contagious nature. We will be concerned that people talk about Christianity and inquire after Christ as the result of our lives and those of our fellow believers.

Faith that Encourages Others

There is a third reason why the reputation for faith that the church at Rome had was worth having: it was an encouragement to other believers elsewhere, including even the apostle Paul himself. In verse 12 Paul speaks of this as an anticipated outcome of his proposed trip to Rome: “that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” That expectation was still future. But Paul could look forward to it and speak so confidently of its happening because reports of the Roman Christians’ faith had undoubtedly already been a source of encouragement to him.

Did Paul need encouragement? We can be sure he did. Paul was an apostle, of course, a man of great faith. But he is the first to tell us that he was often adversely afflicted by the trials and burdens of his work. In 1 Corinthians he admits that when he came to Corinth it was “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). In his second letter to Corinth he writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). Yet he concludes, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (v. 15). Later in the same book, after a lengthy passage listing the many persecutions, hardships, and dangers he endured as Christ’s ambassador, he concludes, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).

Everyone needs encouragement, particularly those who are engaged in spiritual warfare against Satan. But what is to encourage them? God, of course. But God also works through human instruments, and one great means of God’s encouraging Christian workers is the report of genuine, growing faith on the part of others elsewhere.

This is an encouragement to me. Is it not an encouragement to you?

Doesn’t your heart respond thankfully when you hear of thriving churches in formerly Communist nations such as Romania, even when believers there have been harassed and sometimes beaten by the civil authorities? Doesn’t your spirit rise when you hear of the courageous stand against apartheid by many believers in South Africa?

Isn’t your load made lighter when you are told of those in high levels of our own government, in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, who regularly meet for prayer and Bible study, asking God to lead them as they seek to direct the affairs of the United States of America?

Aren’t you also encouraged by the reports of those who are working for Christ in the tough neighborhoods of our cities?

Don’t you rejoice when you hear of even one person who has become a Christian?

Let me interject this additional thought. The thing that distinguishes Paul’s words to the believers in Rome from what he says elsewhere—to believers in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi or some other city he had visited—is that he had not founded the church in Rome. Although he was planning to visit Rome and be encouraged by a mutual sharing of faith with the Roman Christians, up to this point he had not done so, and I would suppose that for that reason alone he was especially encouraged.

Let me speak personally. I am encouraged when some message or word of mine is used by God to bring another person to faith in Christ, as often happens. I am encouraged when something I do for Christ prospers. But notice: I am especially encouraged, doubly heartened, when the blessing of God occurs elsewhere as the result of someone else’s work. Why? Because it means that I am not alone in the work. It means that there are other soldiers in this spiritual warfare and that victory is in the strong hands of our one true commander. I am sure this was true for the apostle Paul and that it was one reason why he thought so buoyantly of the Roman Christians. In hard times it must have cheered him just to know of these Christians and to be aware that their faith was being spoken of “all over the world.”

Faith: The Central Item

The last reason why the reputation of the Christians at Rome was worth having is that faith, and not some other attainment or virtue, is the essential item in life. Faith in Jesus Christ is what matters. Knowledge is good; Christianity considers knowledge quite important. Good works are necessary; without them we have no valid reason for believing that an individual is saved. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23)—is what we want to see. But faith alone—faith in Christ as Lord and Savior—is essential. For “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6a). Without faith no one can be justified.

I wonder if we have the spirit of the apostle at this point. Is this the way we actually evaluate other Christian works and testimony?

Here is what I think we do. I think we evaluate other works first on the basis of size. When we hear of a church that has ten thousand members, we are ten times more impressed than if we learn of a church that has only a thousand members. What of a church with a congregation of ten? Let me be clear. I am not against large churches. I am glad for them. I have often said that large churches can do things smaller churches cannot do—launch specialized Christian ministries, for example, or have prospering subgroups that focus on the specific concerns of only some members. Moreover, large churches are often the result of a strong expository ministry, as are some of the largest churches in Southern California, or of strong faith and piety on the part of their members, like the exceedingly large Korean churches. But we must not think, just because the blessing of numbers is good, that a small church is therefore not as favored by God or is not bearing as faithful or strong a testimony. What about the house churches in China, for example? Or the struggling church in North Africa? We may thank God for numerical growth, but what we should be especially thankful for is strong faith.

Is that what we modern Christians are known for? Strong faith? Is our faith, like the faith of the Roman church of Paul’s day, spoken of throughout the world?

Another thing we do is evaluate Christian work on the basis of programs. The more the better! Or, the more original the better, particularly if the people involved can write a book about it! Again, I am not against programs. Right programs are for the sake of people and rightly minister to them. But is this the proper way to evaluate churches? Do programs prove God’s blessing? You know the answer to that. I do not think the fledgling, first-century church at Rome had many programs, certainly not the kind of things we mean by programs. But it was a famous church—and rightly so. For it was known for what was essential, which is faith.

Is that what we are known for? Do people say of us, “How strong is their faith in God and in Jesus Christ”?

I think we are also impressed—perhaps we are most to be pitied here—by big budgets and big buildings. Again, I am not against either budgets or buildings. Without adequate financing many worthwhile Christian works cannot be done, and without adequate meeting spaces much important activity is hindered. Even in countries like Romania, a chief concern of the thriving Christian congregations has been the repeated attempts of the Communist government to destroy the church structures. Still, a proper concern for budgets and buildings is quite different from evaluating a work on the basis of how large the budget is or how spacious and modern the church structure has become. The Roman church of Paul’s day probably just met in people’s houses. Yet it was a church whose faith was known throughout the world.

Are we known for that? Or is the best thing that other Christians can say about us is that we have a seven-figure budget or impressive church structures?

Faith really is the essential thing, not numbers or programs, not budgets or buildings. It is by faith that we “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The apostle John said, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

I will tell you the kind of reputation I pray we might have at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. I pray that Tenth Presbyterian might be known as a church where people believe what God has told us in the Bible and then actually try to live by what they find there. I want Tenth to be a church known for strong faith in Jesus Christ, where people speak often, lovingly, and fearlessly of him. I want our church to be known for faith where God has placed us, not in some theoretical time or setting, but in the city of Philadelphia, demonstrating that Jesus is the answer to the city’s problems and the problems of those who live here. I want Tenth to be rock hard in faith, in adversity as well as in prosperity, when praised as well as when persecuted.

Is that too much to ask? I think not. I think that is a reasonable goal and a reputation worth having.

Prayed for Constantly

Romans 1:9–12

God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

About the time I was beginning to prepare for these studies in Romans, I was asked to speak at an anniversary service in a nearby church, and I was given the title: “Passing On the Reformation from Generation to Generation.” It was a topic I had never addressed before, and I was not sure how to tackle it. As I thought about the matter, God led me to two sentences, one from the end of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke and the other from the second chapter of Acts. The first is about Jesus. It says, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). The second is about the early Christian church. It says, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people …” (Acts 2:46b–47).

What struck me about those two sentences is the word favor, for it is an insight into how Christianity must be passed on. Our word for it is “modeling.” Jesus so modeled faith that those who looked to him saw he was genuine and therefore favored him and followed him. It was the same with the early church. The early Christians so modeled their profession that those who looked on were attracted to them. We are not surprised to read, immediately after the sentence in Acts 2, that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47b).

That is the way God trains ministers. They see ministry modeled by some other minister before them, and they copy that example.

That is the way God makes evangelists. They learn from others who are already in the work.

That is the way God develops churches. One church models an effective ministry, and other churches learn from it and do the same things themselves.

I begin this way because our subject here is prayer, and the most significant thing to note about it is that our text is a prayer model. Yet this is not a treatise on prayer. It is not a “how-to” for an effective prayer ministry. Rather, it is a glimpse into the apostle Paul’s own prayer life—into his pattern of prayer for Christians in the growing church at Rome—and is therefore a model for us as we think about our own prayer patterns, or lack of them.

Work and Pray

There are a number of things I want you to see about this passage, and the first is this: A strong prayer life is not the least bit inconsistent with vigorous and fervent service for the Lord.

It should be unnecessary to say this, of course, but we often divorce the two in our thinking. Some are called to pray, we reason. Some are called to work. When we think of what we call “prayer warriors,” we often picture old ladies who are strong in faith but unable to “do” much, or we think of people who are hospitalized or bedridden and who can therefore “only” pray. I do not want to be misunderstood at this point, of course. So let me acknowledge that some people are given a special ministry of prayer, perhaps because of precisely these circumstances. Moreover, if you are bedridden or otherwise unable to be outwardly active in Christ’s service, I encourage you to spend much prayer time for others. Many who are incapacitated pray for me. I think of a woman named Cherrio Gridley who was crippled through an industrial accident years ago. She listens to The Bible Study Hour and prays regularly for me and my family, the church, and our ministry. Prayer warriors are needed. But this does not mean that those who are active in Christian work (or any kind of work) do not also need to be strong in praying for God’s direction and blessing.

Here is where the example of Paul is so helpful. We know of his life from the account of it in Acts, and we have additional insights from what Paul says about himself in his letters. We know that he was a pioneer missionary, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to places it had not previously been known. In doing this he covered much of the Roman world.

His labors stretched from Syria to Rome.

He crossed deserts and traversed mountain passes.

He traveled by foot and by sea.

He was frequently beaten, once stoned, often imprisoned.

He was shipwrecked.

Everywhere Paul established churches, and after he had established them he constantly kept in touch with the believers, helping them work through their problems. In one place he speaks of the “daily pressure” of his concern for them.

No harried pastor has ever been more pressed for time than Paul.

No busy executive ever carried a greater burden of responsibility.

Yet Paul was a model of a strong and consistent prayer ministry. In our text he says that he remembered the church at Rome—only one of the many churches of a growing Christian movement, and one he had not even visited—“constantly” and “at all times.” Do you think Paul was exaggerating? I do not think he was exaggerating at all. I think he really did pray all the time, just as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and other effective Christian workers did. Luther once said that he had so much to do in a day that he could not get through it without spending at least three or four hours on his knees before God each morning.

Prayer is not inconsistent with fervent service. On the contrary, as Robert Haldane said, “Prayer and labor ought to go together. To pray without laboring is to mock God; to labor without prayer is to rob God of his glory. Until these are conjoined, the gospel will not be extensively successful.”

Prayer and God-Directed Service

So we see from Paul’s example, as well as from the lives of others, that prayer is not the least bit inconsistent with vigorous Christian activity. On the contrary, and this is the second point: Prayer directs Christian service properly.

Again the apostle Paul is our model. We can think of examples of people who are engaged in Christian work but who do not seem to be going about it in the right way. Either they use the world’s methods, which produce only the world’s results. Or else their goals seem to be secular rather than truly Christian. As we read what Paul says about his prayer life in this chapter, we see that this was not the case with him. He prayed about his work, and as a result God directed it to be done in a spiritual way and for spiritual ends. He says several things about it.

  1. Paul’s service was sincere, or wholehearted. The older versions of verse 9 say, “whom I serve with my spirit,” a literal rendering of the Greek. But the New International Version is surely correct when it paraphrases the text to read, “whom I serve with my whole heart.” The point is not that Paul served God by means of or by using his spirit, though one of our modern versions paraphrases the text in this way: “to whom I offer the humble service of my spirit” (neb). It is rather that Paul served God from the depth of his being—wholeheartedly. What a valid point that is! Not all who profess to serve Christ serve him wholeheartedly. Many are lazy in their service. Many are trying to please other people rather than the Lord. Paul knew of people like this himself. He called them “detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16b). But he was not like them.

What kept Paul from falling into these traps? Clearly it was his relationship to God, sustained by consistent and fervent prayer. As he sought God in prayer, God enabled him to serve the Lord Jesus Christ wholeheartedly.

  1. Paul’s service was gospel-centered. This is the second thing Paul says about his service. It was carried out by his “preaching the gospel of his [God’s] Son” (v. 9). We know about the gospel, of course. We know that it is our task to make the gospel known. But it is surprising how many other things squeeze in as a substitute for this one essential thing, and as a result our service is not gospel-centered. We do not mean to let this happen. Other agendas are usually seen as ways to get the gospel out or to make it known, at least at first. But they take on a character and schedule of their own, and they become ends in themselves. What can keep us from this deviation? The answer is prayer. Prayer focuses our attention on God and his gospel, which was clearly Paul’s case, as is evident in the opening verses of this letter.

It is this more than anything else that I have found prayer to do for me personally. It has redirected my focus so that I have begun to see things in God’s perspective. When that has happened, some of the things in my life that have been most distressing have faded in importance.

  1. Paul’s service was for others. This is the point most evident in Paul’s prayer for the Roman Christians, for he is saying that he had been praying to be with them in order that he might be a blessing in their lives. There is a sequence of three important ideas here, and it begins with prayer. First, Paul prayed that he might be permitted to see the Roman Christians. Second, he prayed that he might see them in order to impart a spiritual blessing to them. Third, he prayed that he might see them and impart a spiritual blessing to them so that they might be strengthened in their Christianity. How did Paul propose to do that? The answer is clear. It was by preaching the gospel to them with his whole heart, just as he had preached it to other people.

We need to see the importance of prayer here also, and the best way to see it is to realize that Christians frequently lose the desire to serve others. They lose it in different ways. Criticism will lessen our zeal for service. It is much harder to serve those who criticize us than to serve those who praise and think well of us. Fatigue will lessen it. We grow too tired to serve and thus inevitably think more of ourselves than other persons. Sin also destroys our desire to serve others. This is because sin breaks contact with God, who is the source of right motivation and desire, and because it focuses attention on ourselves. Sin is really self-centeredness rather than other-centeredness. These and other factors turn us from what we are to be as Christ’s representatives.

What will keep us on target? The one thing that will keep us from falling to these temptations is prayer. Prayer will overcome an undue oppression from criticism. Prayer will redirect our energies, so we will not be so tired. Prayer will strengthen us for doing what needs to be done in spite of our tiredness. Prayer will keep us from temptation.

Have we trials and temptations?

Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged:

Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Can we find a friend so faithful,

Who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our every weakness:

Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Are we weak and heavy laden,

Cumbered with a load of care?

Precious Savior, still our refuge:

Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?

Take it to the Lord in prayer!

In his arms he’ll take and shield thee.

Thou wilt find a solace there.

Joseph Scriven, 1855

Powerful and Effective Prayer

The third point of this passage is that prayer makes the service of the praying one effective.

A perceptive student may observe at this point that Paul had been praying to visit Rome, and yet, however noble that request may have been, obviously he had not received a favorable answer. Paul was far from Rome. He had not been able to visit the believers in Rome even though he “longed” to see them (v. 11) and had “planned many times to come” (v. 13). At this point he was not even on his way to Rome. Well and good! Our prayers are often the same. But if this is the case, how can we honestly talk about prayer being powerful or about prayer making the service of the praying one effective? There are a number of things to notice.

First, to come to Rome to serve the believers there personally was not the only thing Paul had been praying about. Indeed, what he says is that (1) he remembered them in his prayers at all times; and (2) he prayed that now at last the way might be opened for him to come to them. When he remembered them in his prayers at all times, what do you suppose Paul prayed for as regarding the Roman church? Certainly it was not only that he might have a safe journey to them. Most of his prayers probably had little to do with that. Rather, Paul would have prayed for their maturity in faith, for their safety against Satan’s wiles and onslaughts, for their ability to bear an effective witness in the great capital of the empire, with its many perversions and vices. Were these prayers answered? We know they were, because Paul tells us that the faith of the Roman church was being reported all over the world.

If you are praying for someone, do not think your prayers are ineffective just because God is not using you to fulfill the request. God has infinite means at his disposal. He may be answering your prayers by others’ service.

Second, when Paul prayed that the way might be opened for him to come to Rome, he prayed, as he tells us, that the door might be opened “by God’s will” (v. 10). That is, Paul was praying first that the will of God might be done and only secondly that he might come to Rome. He wanted to come to Rome only if that was in God’s plan for his life. Do we need proof of this? The proof is in the way Paul graciously submitted to what hindered his plans. We must remember that Paul was a very forceful man and that when he made plans he undoubtedly did everything in his power to stick to them. Moreover, the proposed trip to Rome was no passing fancy on Paul’s part. Already we catch a glimpse of how seriously he took it. But in case we miss the point, we find him bringing it up again in chapter 15, saying in several places that his heart had been set on traveling to Rome and then, after being helped on his way by the Roman church, passing on to Spain to preach the Word of God there. Undoubtedly Paul wanted to preach the gospel from one end of the Roman world to the other, from Jerusalem to Tarshish. Nevertheless, when he was hindered in his plans, we do not catch any trace of agitation or frustration on his part. On the contrary, he graciously submitted to God’s will for his life and recognized that there was value even in delays. If nothing else, delays gave him additional time to preach the gospel to those in Greece and Asia.

Third—we can hardly miss this—Paul did get to Rome eventually. It was not when he would have chosen, and it certainly was not in the manner he would have chosen. But he did get there, and God did use him to reach many in the capital. In Philippians he tells us that while he was in prison the gospel spread throughout the Praetorian guard. And we know from other sources that eventually the message of the cross reached even the highest levels of the government. Were Paul’s prayers answered? Of course, they were. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16b, kjv).

Does Prayer Change Things—Or People?

There is one last thing I want you to see in this section. Not only is prayer not inconsistent with a life of active service for Jesus Christ, and not only (on the contrary) does it direct that service and make it effective—Prayer also changes the one praying so that he or she increasingly becomes the kind of person through whom God can accomplish his purpose.

This was true of Paul. By temperament he was not a particularly gracious individual—at least, that is how it seems to me. In his early days he was cruel. He killed those who disagreed with him. Even after he became a Christian I am sure he had his bad moments. He quarreled with Barnabas over John Mark, for instance. Yet how gracious he is in this letter! Paul writes of his desire to visit Rome “so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” (v. 11). But no sooner has he said this than Paul, not desiring to set himself up above the believers at Rome as if he were somehow superior to them, immediately adds as an important qualification, “that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (v. 12). That is an insight into the life of a man who had been changed by prayer and who was being used by God greatly.

Sometimes people ask, “Does prayer change things, or does prayer change people?” It is a good question, and the answer probably is “both.” Prayer does change things, since God responds to prayer and frequently alters circumstances because of it. James points to this result when he says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2b).

On the other hand, I am convinced that far more frequently God uses prayer to change us. Because by it he brings us into his presence, opens our eyes to spiritual realities, and makes his perspectives ours.

In Ray C. Stedman’s book Talking to My Father, the well-known pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church of Palo Alto, California, tells the story of a missionary couple who were returning to the United States by ship after a lifetime of service in Africa. It was during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, and Roosevelt, as it happened, was sailing on the same ship. He had been game hunting in Africa, and when he came aboard there was a tremendous fanfare. Bands played. Dignitaries appeared. Crowds of people stationed themselves to see and greet the president. When the ship arrived in America it was more of the same thing. Roosevelt was applauded, and many of the important people of the government came out to welcome him.

Nobody paid any attention to the missionary couple, and it greatly depressed the old man. The two were broken in health. They had no pension; no one had much in those days. They had nowhere to go. They were afraid. “It’s not fair,” he said to his wife. “We have served God all these years, and when we come home there is not even a single person here to welcome us. We have no money. We have nowhere to go. If God is running the world, why does he permit such injustice?”

His wife said, “You had better go into the bedroom and talk to God about it.”

The missionary did, and when he came out a while later a great change had come over him. His wife said, “You feel better now, don’t you, dear?”

“Yes,” he said. “I began to pray and tell God how unjust the whole thing was. I told him how bitter I was that the president should receive a grand welcome and that we should receive nothing. There was not even a single person to welcome us home. But when I finished, it seemed as if the Lord just placed his hand on my shoulder and said in a quiet voice, ‘But you’re not home yet.’ ”

That is quite true, of course. That is the true perspective on what we are doing. But we will see it and live it only as we commune with God in prayer and learn to trust him and look forward to our homecoming.

Unanswered Prayer

Romans 1:13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

There are very few churchgoers who have not heard the story of the little boy who was praying for a bicycle for Christmas. His was a poor family, so when Christmas morning came there was no bicycle. A friend of the family, who was not too sensitive about such things, said to the lad, “Well, I see God didn’t answer your prayer for a bicycle.”

The boy replied, “Yes, he did; he said No.”

Most of us are aware that No is an answer every bit as much as Yes. But I have always felt that the story of the little boy’s prayer does not quite get to the heart of the prayer problem. To receive a bicycle might be nice, but it is clearly not essential. Nor is it spiritual. Most of us understand that when we pray for things like bicycles—a better job, more money, success in a business deal, or the resolution of certain personal problems—there is no real reason why we should expect a Yes answer. God may give what we ask for, but again he may not. We accept that. But what about prayers that really are spiritual? What about prayers that are (or at least seem to be) unselfish? What happens when these prayers are not answered? This is where the real problem with prayer lies and why the people who have trouble with it are not the novices in prayer, as we might suspect—novices do not expect much from prayer anyway—but rather the church’s mature believers. It is the saints who feel the burden of unanswered prayer. It is the godly who wrestle with it strenuously.

So what happens? Unfortunately, some persons become somewhat fatalistic about prayer. J. Oswald Sanders pointed to this problem when he wrote, “It is easy to become a fatalist in reference to prayer. It is easier to regard unanswered prayer as the will of God than to … reason out the causes of the defeat.”

Prayer of an Apostle

In the case of Paul’s prayer, recounted in Romans 1, we have a superb example of precisely this problem. Why is it such a good example?

First, it is a prayer by an apostle. The fact that Paul was an apostle does not mean that he was without sin, of course. Nor does it mean that all Paul’s prayers were spiritual. Paul did not pray by inspiration, the way he wrote his epistles. In fact, I believe that there is an example of his praying out of the will of God in his prayers to visit Jerusalem with the gifts of the Gentile churches, which Luke tells us about in Acts. God warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and even after he went the Lord appeared to him to say, “Leave Jerusalem immediately …” (Acts 22:18). Yet Paul did not leave and was eventually imprisoned.

Paul was not without sin as an apostle. Yet he was an apostle, and that says something. It is significant that such a one did not have his prayers answered positively, or at least at once.

Second, Paul’s prayer was a proper prayer. I wrote in the previous study that Romans 1:8–12 is not a treatise on prayer in the sense of providing a theological explanation of prayer. It is a prayer model, an example. Still, it is a proper prayer. It is to the Father on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus Christ and, although Paul does not say so explicitly, it was undoubtedly also in the Holy Spirit. Paul puts all three persons of the Godhead together in reference to prayer in one sentence in Ephesians 2:18: “For through him [that is, Jesus Christ] we both [that is, Jews and Gentiles] have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

There is one more important thing to see about this prayer, the third item: It was a prayer for right things. Paul might have prayed for something that would only have enhanced his prestige or personal comfort; that is, he might have prayed selfishly. But that was not the case here at all. Paul was praying to come to Rome in order that (1) he might “impart some spiritual gift” to the end that (2) the believers in Rome might be made “strong” (v. 11). In other words, he wanted to assist in the spiritual growth and fruitfulness of the Roman believers.

This was an entirely worthy and quite spiritual motive. Yet, as I have said, Paul was prevented from coming. His prayer was not answered positively.

Paul does not give an explanation of why his proposed visit to Rome was hindered, at least not here. He only says, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.” I do not doubt that Paul could have suggested a reason why his prayers were unanswered, perhaps a number of reasons. But he does not, and the fact that he does not opens the door for us to reflect on why prayers like his—including the best of our own prayers—go unanswered.

Not as Necessary as We Think

I want to suggest a number of reasons why perfectly proper prayers may go unanswered and what we may learn from this. The first is: Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are. That is so important it is worth saying again. Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are.

This is clear in Paul’s case, is it not? Paul had been praying that he might be permitted to travel to Rome to serve and strengthen the Roman Christians. But noble as this desire may have been, it is also clear that the believers in Rome were doing quite well without him. Indeed, they were doing well without any apostle or noteworthy teacher. Paul testifies to this when he records that their strong faith was being reported on all over the world (v. 8). I do not want to be misunderstood at this point, of course. I have no doubt that if Paul had been allowed to go to Rome, he would have been a blessing to the Christians. Moreover, they apparently did need his teaching, since God directed him to write them the letter we are studying. We, too, need pastors, teachers, and other church leaders. The point is not that Paul could not have been then or eventually a blessing to these Christians, but only that he was not essential to it. God was perfectly able to bless and prosper this church without Paul’s personal ministrations.

I do not say that this is something Paul himself necessarily learned by God’s refusal to send him to Rome, though it may have been. But it is certainly something we frequently need to learn. I say this because, as I suspect, most of our good prayers—not our selfish or ignorant or carnal prayers, but our good prayers—have ourselves at the center and assume that, if God is to answer them, he must do so through us as his agents.

One thing unanswered prayer may do for us is teach us to pray for blessing on God’s work through other people. Years ago, at a management training session for the Servicemaster company, I was taught that good management is “getting the right things done through other people.” That is not a bad definition for some prayers. It is at least something we need to practice more frequently.

The great pioneer missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, learned this function of prayer early in his ministry. He had taken literally the verse “owe no man any thing” (Rom. 13:8 kjv) and believed that Christians should never incur debt, even in Christian work. So, when a financial need occurred, he prayed for God to meet it, a lesson he had learned from George Mueller, the founder of the faith orphanages in England. Not long after Taylor had been in China he was moved to pray for two missionaries for each of China’s eleven provinces plus Mongolia, twenty-four in all. He had no means of supporting them, so he had to pray for sufficient funds as well. There was not even a society to send them out. But Taylor prayed for this, and God answered—first with the original twenty-four missionaries, then with the thousands who later went to China under the auspices of the China Inland Mission. The growth of the China Inland Mission in those days is a great story.

Was Taylor necessary for this work? Yes, in a way. His prayers were necessary. But he was not the means of conveying the blessing of God to these many provinces of China personally.

Other Things to Do

The second reason why perfectly proper prayers of ours may be unanswered is that God may have other work for us to do. This seems to have been the chief (perhaps the only) reason why God did not send the great apostle to Rome earlier. In the fifteenth chapter of Romans, Paul speaks of his ministry among the remote cities of the Gentiles as a fulfillment of Isaiah 52:15—“Those who were not told about him [that is, Jesus] will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” Then he adds, somewhat unexpectedly, “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you” (v. 22). It was his ministry among the people of Asia and Greece that had kept him from the Roman Christians, and that is why he did not chafe under the hindrances God sent. He recognized that delay in reaching Rome was for the sake of the Christian mission elsewhere. We need to learn this, too, and be content through learning it. Let me give some examples.

Here is a man who is in an unrewarding job and who would very much prefer another line of work. He tells the Lord that he is not being fulfilled in his present employment, that he is not using the gifts he believes God has given him, that he is not getting ahead, that he is accomplishing little. Each of those points may be true. The work may be unusually frustrating. But God does not give him a new job. Why? We cannot say why for certain, but it may be that God still has work for this man in the job he has, even though he cannot see it or believe it is happening. There may be another worker to help. There may be a moral issue to be faced. There may be a person who needs to hear the gospel and be led to Jesus Christ.

Here is a woman who is not married but who wants to be. She tells God that she would be much happier married, that she is not really interested in pursuing a career (though many other women are), that she does not want to grow old alone. Those are perfectly valid desires. Still, God does not answer her prayers positively. Why? It may be that God simply has work for her to do as a single person. He may need her as a single Christian executive, nurse, teacher, businesswoman, secretary, or whatever.

If you are praying for something and God is not answering your request with a Yes, ask what you can accomplish in the meantime and give yourself to that. It does not mean that God may not give you what you are asking for eventually, but in the meantime you will be doing good work.

Spiritual Warfare

The third reason why our prayers may go unanswered for a time is the hardest to understand: There may be spiritual warfare of which you and I are unaware. There are examples of this in Scripture. Paul spoke of “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7), saying that he prayed three times for it to be removed but that God had replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). A second example is Daniel, who prayed for something but did not receive an answer to his prayer for three weeks. When at last he did receive an answer, the angel who brought it explained that when Daniel had begun to pray he had started out with God’s answer but that he had been resisted by a spiritual being called “the prince of the Persian kingdom.” He was able to come through eventually only because the archangel Michael helped him (Dan. 10:1–14).

Spiritual battles are mysteries to us, because we cannot see the warfare. But there are spiritual battles, and we need to know about them. They are an important reason why some of our prayers go unanswered.

Does Prayer Change People?

In the previous study I asked the question, “Does prayer change things or change people?” I answered, “Both.” Prayer changes things (or circumstances) because it is a God-ordained way of changing them. I based my view on James 4:2, which says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” If prayer does not change things, then many of the promises that concern it are at best misrepresentations. Jacques Ellul is quite right, though very bold, when he says, “It is prayer, and prayer alone, which can make history.… To pray is to carry oneself toward the future. It is both to expect it as possible, and to will it as history.”

But prayer also (perhaps chiefly) changes people, as I pointed out.

I want to return to that point now, because, in addition to all I have said so far, one important reason for God not answering prayer is deficiency in us. And so, prayer needs to change us before it changes circumstances. What are our deficiencies? What needs changing in us?

  1. Unconfessed sin. There are more verses in the Bible saying that God will not answer prayers than there are verses that say he will, and one of the chief categories of verses that deal with unanswered prayer concerns sin. Isaiah wrote, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1–2). If God is not answering your prayers—particularly if he is not answering any of them—one thing you should do is ask whether you are cherishing some sin. If so, you need to confess it for full forgiveness and cleansing.
  2. Wrong motives. James spoke of this when he said, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Can a person pray for even spiritual things wrongly? Yes, of course. A woman may pray for the conversion of her husband, but with wrong motives—not for his good, that he may be saved from hell and enjoy fellowship with God in this life—but because it would be much more pleasant for her to have a Christian husband or because other Christians would think better of her.

A pastor may pray with wrong motives—for revival, for instance. How? By praying not chiefly so that people may be saved, but that his church might begin to grow and other pastors might look up to him as an effective teacher and evangelist. In The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power, R. A. Torrey tells of one minister who was praying for revival so he would not lose his church, and of another who was praying to be baptized with the Holy Spirit because he thought he would be paid more if he was.

If we are praying with wrong motives, we need to be changed by God through prayer so we might pray properly.

  1. Laziness. It is said of Elijah that he prayed “earnestly” that it would not rain and that it did not rain for three and a half years (James 5:17). Prayer was a serious business with him. One reason our prayers are not answered is that we are not really serious about them.
  2. We are too busy. Sometimes we are too busy to pray “earnestly.” But, as someone has said, “If we are too busy to pray, we are too busy.” Each of us has exactly the same amount of time in a day as every other person. If we say we are too busy to pray, what we are really saying is that we consider the things we are doing to be more important than praying. This is a theological misunderstanding.
  3. Idols in the heart. Some of the elders of Israel once came to Ezekiel to pray with him. But the Lord said to Ezekiel, “These men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all?” (Ezek. 14:3). Is an idol keeping you from having your prayers answered? Is that idol a person? A boyfriend? A girlfriend? A wife? A husband? Your children? Is it your job? Is it your lifestyle? Your social position? Your worldly reputation? Is it your image of yourself? Are you determined above all else to be “successful”? To place anything ahead of God is idolatry. It is a categorical prayer hindrance.
  4. Stinginess in our giving. Proverbs 21:13 says, “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” In other words, if you do not give to the needy, God will not give to you when you ask him for something. Or again, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). This is quite clear. Torrey writes, “Here God distinctly tells us that he measures out his benefactions to us in exactly the same measure that we measure out our benefactions to others. And some of us use such [tiny] pint cup measures in our giving that God can only give us a pint cup blessing.”

The spiritual life of many Christians can be written in just this one word: stinginess. They began with generous hearts, recognizing that God had been generous to them in salvation. But then they became critical of what God was doing in their lives, or critical of other believers or of the way things were being done in their church—and their generosity dried up. They kept their money for themselves. And God stopped giving! Their abundance leveled off. They plateaued because they could not be trusted with more assets.

  1. Unbelief. The greatest cause of failure in our prayer, and the area in which we most need to be changed, is unbelief. James told those of his day to “believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord …” (James 1:6–7). If we do not believe God’s Word unquestioningly, why should we get what we pray for? Is it a surprise that our prayers are unanswered?

Pray and Do Not Give Up

I close with a hypothetical situation. Here you are, someone who has been praying earnestly for something for a long time and has not had an answer. As we have seen, there are numerous reasons why a positive answer may have been delayed, all the way from spiritual warfare in the heavenlies to our sin or unbelief. What are you to do? Should you keep on battering the brass doors of heaven with ineffectual petitions? Or should you accept God’s rejection? Should you quit praying?

The answer is in Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow, which, Luke tells us, teaches that we “should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). Prayer may change us. It may change history. But whatever the case, we must keep praying.

Paul kept praying, and he got to Rome eventually.

George Mueller kept praying, too. When Mueller was a young man he had three friends who were not Christians. He began to pray for them. He prayed every day for more than sixty years. It seemed as if his prayers would never be answered. But they were. Two of those men were converted shortly before Mueller’s death, one at what was probably the last service Mueller held. The other was converted within a year of Mueller’s funeral. Unanswered prayer? How do we ever know it will remain unanswered? Since we do not, we ought always to pray and not give up.

The Whole Gospel for the Whole World

Romans 1:14–15

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

The title of this chapter has two parts: (1) the whole gospel, and (2) the whole world, but I am going to spend most of it on the second part. The reason is that “the whole world,” rather than “the whole gospel,” is the new idea at this point in the exposition. As far as the gospel goes, we have already learned a great deal about it in the opening verses of Paul’s letter, and we will learn more as our study proceeds. Indeed, the letter of Paul to the Romans is the best treatment of “the whole gospel” in all Scripture. The point I want to emphasize in this study is that this full-orbed gospel is for everybody.

Our text expresses it from the perspective of Paul’s personal experience: “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”

Actually, the gospel has always been for everybody. Thom Hopler in his excellent book on cross-cultural evangelism, A World of Difference: Following Christ Beyond Your Cultural Walls, shows this from the Bible as a whole. As early as Genesis 3, we see that the gospel is for both male and female, the first announcement of the gospel being made both to Adam and to Eve (Gen. 3:15). In Daniel we find that it is for the dreaded Babylonians as well as for the persecuted Jews. In the ministry of Jesus Christ the gospel was taught to “publicans and sinners” as well as to those who had the privileges of education and high birth, like Nicodemus. It was disclosed to the Samaritan woman of John 4. Later, at the time of the expanding apostolic ministry, God reminded Peter that the gospel was for Roman military officers, like Cornelius, as well as for those who, like the Jews, were ceremonially “clean.” On that occasion Peter made the point by declaring, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34–35). Jesus showed the geographical scope of the gospel’s proclamation in Acts’ version of the Great Commission: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

How easily we forget this! Christians forget, or at least willfully ignore, that the gospel is for people other than themselves. Unbelievers argue, as an excuse, that the gospel is for other types of people.

To Wise People Everywhere

In Romans 1:14 the first persons to whom Paul says he is obligated as an ambassador of the gospel are Greeks, whom he contrasts with “non-Greeks” or, as some of our more literal versions say, “barbarians.”

There is a second contrast in this sentence, “the wise” and the “foolish” (or “unwise”), which indicates how the first category is to be understood. If Paul had contrasted Greeks with Romans—which he could have done, since he was writing to Romans, we would have to understand the distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks in terms of nationality. If he had let the comparison end with “Greeks” and “non-Greeks,” not mentioning “wise” and “unwise,” the distinction would have been primarily an ethnic one. However, Paul adds the words wise and foolish, and by doing this he shows that what he is chiefly thinking of is culture or education. Because of their language, long-established Greeks had access to the great historical, epic, dramatic and, above all, philosophical writings of the past. Even the powerful Romans got the bulk of their education through this channel. Apart from the Greek language, others—people of all kinds—could never be considered learned or wise by Greek standards.

So Paul’s first claim is that the gospel God sent him to proclaim is for the learned of this world. It is for the wise, whether they are Greeks or Romans or Americans or even the elite among university professors.

The gospel is for you if you are among the educated of our world. You need this ancient Christian gospel. Whatever your educational attainments, however wise you may be, you are still a sinful man or woman and are cut off from the God who made you and to whom you must one day give account for your many sins. You are mortal. One day you will die. You will enter eternity with or without the Lord Jesus Christ—just as surely as any other man or woman.

I know the evasions you might make, because I have been to the same schools and have taken the same courses. I have heard the arguments. You can say, “I was taught in my sociology courses that religions are all relative. They are to be understood by the cultural forces that give them birth. You are a Christian only because you have been born in the West and are the product of an historical stream descending from the Reformation. If you had been born elsewhere, you might as well have been a Buddhist or a Muslim.” That is quite true, of course; at least the last part of it is true. But the issue is not where you or I have been privileged (or not privileged) to be born, but whether there is a God and whether or not he is as Christianity presents him. If there is a God, he obviously has some character. He is not everything and nothing all at the same time. Is he the Bible’s God? Did God send his Son Jesus Christ to bring us salvation? You cannot escape those questions by mere sociological comparisons.

The Greeks tried to do that even in Paul’s day. When he traveled to Athens, the intellectual capital of the world, and spoke of Jesus Christ there, the Greek intellectuals were politely amused by this religious novelty. They thought Paul a proclaimer of “foreign gods.” None of this daunted Paul, however. He proclaimed the true God anyway. “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you,” he said (Acts 17:23). He finished his address by speaking of the final judgment and commanding his listeners to repent of their sins.

So also must you.

Perhaps you have another method by which you are trying to evade the gospel’s implications. You consider the details of Christianity to be magical or absurd and therefore easy to reject, just as some of the Athenians did. “Who can believe in miracles today?” you protest. “No intelligent person can believe in divine-human beings, people walking on water, resurrections, and such things. We have to reject those old superstitions.”

But intelligent people do believe these things. They do today, and they always have. What is more, they are convinced that it is those who reject the supernatural who are really the unintelligent.

Let me echo one other “educated” objection. There are people who have taken religion courses in college or graduate school and who now know enough to turn a rather superficial knowledge of biblical studies against the Bible itself. They can speak of “Pauline” verses and “Petrine” theology. They can speak of first and second Isaiah. They think, just because they have a slight acquaintance with such things, that they can sit in judgment on the Bible rather than having it the other way around. “After all, Paul was just a male chauvinist,” they say. Or, “If Moses lived when the Bible says he lived, he couldn’t even have known how to write—least of all have given us the Pentateuch.”

These critical theories have been answered well by conservative, believing scholars, some quite conclusively. Besides, if you honestly want to learn about Christianity, why go to an unbelieving professor to learn about it? Is that not in itself an evasion? Would you not learn more about true piety from that believing pastor who once wanted to help you come to Christ? Or from your believing mother or grandmother who has been praying for you all these many years? Has your skepticism really made your life more comprehensible?

Let me make this first important point again: the gospel is for you—however well educated or intellectually endowed you may be. Your intellect and education are great gifts. But it is God who has given them to you. And if you do not thank him for these gifts and use them in ways that honor him, you are more deserving of judgment than those who are unintelligent. You need a Savior.

The apostle Paul had one of the best educations of his day, having been taught in the wisdom of the Greeks as well as in the religious traditions of Israel. He was a Roman citizen, too! But Paul learned that the gospel of the crucified Son of God alone was true wisdom. It was to people in an important Greek city that he wrote:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20–25

To “Ordinary” People Everywhere

The Greeks called “barbarians” all who were not Greek, the next category of people to whom Paul says he was obliged to preach the gospel.

“Barbarian” did not have quite the negative overtones to the Greeks as it has for us. The word actually had to do with speech patterns, for when the Greeks heard “foreigners” speak, what they said sounded like babbling, or stammering: bar, bar bar. (The Greek word barbaros also is linked to the Sanskrit barbera, which referred to inarticulate speech.) So barbarians were people who did not speak Greek. But although the word did not have quite the negative overtones it has for us—some of the “barbarians” were quite cultured people—it nevertheless had some. Greek was the language of the educated. Since the histories, epics, and plays were in Greek, to be a barbarian was to be cut off from this cultural storehouse.

Perhaps you are a person who feels yourself similarly disadvantaged. I suppose there are more people today who feel themselves to be cut off from the mainstream of society than there are people who feel a part of it.

You may feel cut off because of a lack of educational opportunities. So many people have been to college. You have not. You have not read the books they have read and talk about. You are not at ease with the buzz words of the intellectual establishment—terms like, well, “buzz word” itself or “interface” or “existential.” You do not speak as educated people do. Perhaps you have regional patterns to your speech or make mistakes in grammar.

You may feel cut off because of your race. No matter that others of your race have made it; they are exceptions, you think. You have not, and those who belong to other races, or who belong to your race and have made it to the top, never seem to let you forget your place.

You may feel cut off because of your low income, which shows in the clothes you wear, the neighborhood you live in, the car you drive, and many other distinctions.

For those and other reasons you feel left out. So you look at what the world calls “Christian people” and say, “Those are not my people. I don’t belong in their company. Christianity is their religion. It is not mine.”

Here I must ask forgiveness for what has become a terrible sin of the twentieth-century church. Somehow many people feel cut off from the fellowship of believers. As the gospel has succeeded in reaching people and transforming them, bringing them to new levels of opportunity and achievement, it has often taken on these new cultural overtones—just as you have seen. Christians too often forget that Jesus Christ did not go first to the wise, wealthy, or influential citizens of his day, but to the everyday people, whoever and wherever they were. The important people did not like him for it! They called him a friend of drunkards and sinners. Nevertheless, that is where he went. His friends were carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and others who worked hard for a living. After his death and resurrection, when the gospel began to spread beyond the geographical borders of Israel, it was among the working people—often among slaves—that it advanced most readily.

I apologize on behalf of any Christian who has given the impression that Christianity is only for the educated, influential, or wealthy. At the same time I urge you not to miss believing on Jesus Christ because of that sadly wrong impression.

In Paul’s day there were not many who had the advantages of what we would call a university education, but Paul wrote to the others to say that God had chosen them to expose the foolishness of merely human wisdom:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.… Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”.

1 Corinthians 1:26–29, 31

To Religious People Everywhere

In our text, Romans 1:14–15, Paul limits his “categories” of those who need the gospel to Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and the foolish. I do not know why he stopped at that point. But it is significant that in the very next verse Paul adds another important category, when he distinguishes between the Jew and the Gentile (v. 16). In the first instance he was probably thinking of the Romans, who were largely Gentiles. But when he gives the full statement of his thesis in verse 16, he adds this additional category to indicate that the gospel is indeed for the entire world.

Isn’t it surprising that Paul feels a need to mention Jews specifically? The gospel is about a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. It was taught, at least in the early days, exclusively from the Jewish Scriptures. The Old Testament is a Jewish book. The apostles and the early preachers of the gospel were all Jews. Why, then, should Jews specifically be mentioned?

The answer is that Jews as a whole, even more than Gentiles, resisted the gospel. Why? Because it did not fit their strong religious traditions. It is true that the gospel had been promised to Jews in the very Scriptures they defended. But they had imposed their own expectations on those Scriptures and handled them so as to build their own feelings of self-righteousness rather than as a way to recognize sin and their need for the Savior whom God had promised to send. As a result, when God sent Jesus they resented his “independent” spirit and fought him when his moral perfection exposed their own deep sin.

It is the same today, in the sense that the gospel of salvation by Jesus Christ is resisted most by those who are “religious.” Of all persons, religious people often have the least sense of personal need. Above all others, they especially think themselves to have achieved God’s standards and deserve commendation by him. They resent being taught that they, too, are sinners, that they, too, need a Savior, that they, too, must come to God through simple faith—just as others. Yet they desperately need Jesus.

Are you one of those people? Do you feel secure in your religion—apart from Jesus? If so, you need to learn that no religion, even Christianity, can save you. Only God can save you. He has made provision for that through the work of Jesus Christ, his own Son, who died for you. That is the gospel. That is what you need. It is needed by everybody.

To Everybody Everywhere

At the close of his statement of obligation to the Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and unwise, Paul explains his views by declaring, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” When he mentions “you who are at Rome” Paul is not adding a new category, for the Romans fit within the earlier Greek or non-Greek, wise or foolish groupings. The church at Rome included every conceivable type of man or woman and was therefore itself all-embracing. So I think that when Paul says that the gospel is for those at Rome “also” he is actually saying, “The gospel is for you, whoever you may be and wherever you may find yourself.”

I present it to you in that way.

You may be a very young person with your whole life stretching before you. You have great plans, and you may have very little place for God in those plans. If so, I tell you that the gospel is for you and that you need it, just as others do. Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said in a talk to children, “You may be young; but you are old enough to sin, and you are old enough to die.” As long as that is true, you need a Savior.

You may be an older person, perhaps very along in years. You are thinking that life is almost over for you and that decisions of this scope are for young people. You may be thinking that it is too late to make changes. But you especially need the gospel. Soon you will stand before God, your Maker, and you will have to give an account for your many long years of sinning. You have heard the gospel. Will you have to tell God that you rejected it, that you spurned the offer of grace through his crucified Son, the Lord Jesus? It is not too late. Today can be the day of your salvation. If you turn to him now, you will find that the last years of your life will be the most important and precious of all.

Perhaps you are from a non-Western, non-English-speaking country. You may be reading these words in part because you are a guest in the United States or because you want to learn about America. You may think that what you are reading is something uniquely American, that it is not for you, not for one from your country or from your background. I tell you that it is for you. It is the gospel of the one God and of the one Savior. It is a gospel that has already permeated the entire world. It has come to you now. It is time for you to trust Jesus.

Perhaps you are an American, and you think that you already are a Christian—just because you have been born in a so-called Christian country. Being an American will not save you. Having a Christian tradition or even Christian parents will not save you. Belonging to a church will not save you. You need the gospel. You need to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior.

The gospel is for those who live in Philadelphia. It is for those in New York. It is for those in Paris or Bombay or Beijing or Mombassa or Bogotá. Whoever you are, you need the gospel. The whole world needs the gospel, and the gospel it needs is the whole gospel of God’s grace to sinners through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

If you are not a Christian, you need to hear this and come to the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior.

If you are a Christian, you need to make this great good news known to other people, as Paul did.[2]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 31–48). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 69–100). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Romans 1:1-7 Commentary Series

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)

the proclamation

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.

the purpose

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..[1]

A Man in Christ

Romans 1:1

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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).

  1. 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

Romans 1:1–2

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

Acts 8:32–33

The story relates that “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (v. 35).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

God’s Gospel

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

Romans 1:2–4

… 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.

The God-Man

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

Jeremiah 23:5–6

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.

  1. 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

Romans 1:4b

… 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. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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).

  1. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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

Romans 1:5

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. Charles Hodge: “The obedience of faith is that obedience which consists in faith, or of which faith is the controlling principle.”
  4. 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.”
  5. F. Godet: “The only possible meaning is: the obedience which consists of faith itself.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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

Romans 1:6–7

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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![2]

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.[3]

Salutation (1:1–7)


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.[4]

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).[5]

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.[6]

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.[7]



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.

  1. 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:

1 Thessalonians




2 Corinthians




2 Thessalonians












1 Corinthians






28 (or 30)






2 Timothy
















1 Timothy








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.

or similarly:

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:

  1. In the present context it is hard to see why Paul would have to emphasize that he is a man saved by grace.
  2. 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.[8]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 1–34). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 21–68). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 39–51). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] 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.

[5] Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 25–32). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[6] 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.

[7] Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, pp. 18–25). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[8] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 36–48). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

All the Messages and Panels from T4G posted in order

The messages from T4G are already posted on the T4G website. All the plenary sessions and the panels posted in order below. Lig Duncan’s is one you’ll want to listen to, so I featured it above.

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Covenant Theology: The Law, Justification, and Sanctification

When the Protestant Reformers recovered the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, they recovered the heart of the gospel. By the mid-1600’s in England, heirs of the Reformation learned that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was not merely supported by exegesis of a few texts of Scripture (eg., Rom 3:28, Gal 2:15-16), but by the Bible’s overarching covenantal structure. Furthermore, the Bible’s covenant theology shows how this great doctrine of justification is not alone, but ever accompanied with sanctification.  Historic Protestant and Baptist covenant theology, sometimes called federal theology, preserves both gospel blessings.

1. The Covenant of Works. Reformed covenant theology teaches that the New Testament shows that God made a covenant with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Because God created Adam in His own image, he was created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), which means that Adam had the work of the moral law, the Ten Commandments, written on his nature. Romans 2:14-15 says, “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” Adam was the first Gentile (Lk 3:38), made in God’s image, which means that the “work of the law” was written on Adam’s heart.

But what law is Paul talking about in Romans 2? Paul goes on and lists laws of the Ten Commandments: “stealing” (Rom 2:21), “adultery” (Rom 2:22), and idolatry (Rom 2:22). Paul even distinguishes this moral law of the Ten Commandments from the “positive law” (law that is uniquely posited by God in each distinct covenant) in verse 26, where he says it is possible to “keep the law” without being “circumcised.” Thus, Adam had the work of the moral law of God, the Ten Commandments, written on his heart by nature, but not the Old Covenant positive laws. And the sinfulness of Adam’s disobeying God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was rebellion against God, which is a moral transgression against the Ten Commandments.

God created Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden, and required of him perfect obedience to the whole moral law of God (the Ten Commandments). His obedience to the Ten Commandments would be tested by whether or not he obeyed the positive law of that covenant of works (not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). If Adam had passed the test and fulfilled all righteousness by perfect obedience to the law, he would be justified, granted eternal life, and glorified. Of course, Adam sinned against God’s good law, and as a result, Adam and all of his posterity were condemned and became justly liable to eternal punishment in hell. Because of Adam’s failure in the covenant of works, those who descend from Adam by ordinary generation inherit from him a sinful nature that rebels against the work of the moral law written on their hearts (Rom 5:12, 18-19).

The Second London Baptist Confession clearly teaches that there was such a covenant with Adam in the Garden. The confession says, “Although God created man upright and perfect and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof . . . [Adam] did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them in eating the forbidden fruit” (6.1). It also says, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (7.1). And it says, “The covenant of works, being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life” (20.1).

In summary, the covenant of works promised justification and eternal life to Adam on the condition of perfect obedience to the law of the Ten Commandments, which was imprinted on his nature, and obedience to the positive law of the Garden of Eden, which God revealed by way of covenant.

2. The Covenant of Redemption. Temporally speaking, the covenant of redemption was formed in eternity past, but Christ actually obeyed its terms in His incarnate life (2 Tim 1:9-10). But logically speaking, the covenant of redemption comes after the covenant of works because Christ undoes what Adam did in the fall. That’s why Paul speaks of Adam as the federal head of the human race and then Christ as the federal head of His people. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience, the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ answers the problem Adam created in the covenant of works. That’s why Paul calls Christ the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45), referring to His work in the covenant of redemption.

The covenant of redemption was an arrangement, principally between the Father and the Son, about the redemption of the elect. Our Lord Jesus covenanted with the Father to do what Adam failed to do. As a substitute for the elect, He agreed to obey the Ten Commandments perfectly to merit justification, and to suffer condemnation and death to satisfy the penalty of the violated law. For Christ, this covenant of redemption was a covenant of works, not a covenant of grace. He had to obey the terms of this covenant in order to satisfy the law’s penalty of death and to earn the law’s blessing of life, and His resurrection proves that He earned justification and life for all His chosen people. This is Christ’s substitutionary work of law-keeping, which is the basis of free and gracious justification by faith alone. Jesus did what Adam and his descendants failed to do so that we only need to trust Him to be justified and reconciled to our holy God.

The Scripture explicitly calls this arrangement between the Father and Christ a “covenant.” In Luke 22:29, Jesus says, “I assign [diatithemai] to you, as my Father assigned [dietheto] to me, a kingdom.” The word “diatheme” can mean “to make a covenant or to enter into a covenant.” And here Jesus tells us that the Father made a covenant with Him to give Him a kingdom. The arrangement between the Father and the Son is also called a “covenant” in Isaiah 54:10, referring to the work of Christ to make peace between God and men in Isaiah 53. Many passages speak of such a covenantal arrangement between the Father and the Son (Ps 40:6-8; Is 42:1-9; 49:1-26; Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 10:17-18; 17:1-5; Eph 1:3-14).

The Second London Baptist Confession speaks of this covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. It says “This covenant is revealed in the gospel . . . and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the son about the redemption of the elect; it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all of the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency” (7.3).

In summary, Adam sinned against God’s law in the covenant of works and so failed to obtain justification and life for those covenantally united to him, and instead brought condemnation and death upon them. But Christ perfectly obeyed God’s law in the covenant of redemption, earning its blessing and paying its penalty, and so merited justification and eternal life for the elect who are all united to Him in time.

3. The Covenant of Grace. Founded upon the covenant of redemption with Christ, God made the covenant of grace with His elect people for their salvation from condemnation and punishment. This covenant of grace was inaugurated in Genesis 3:15, immediately after the fall, when God promised His people that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. This covenant is revealed by farther steps throughout the Old Testament (eg., Isa 61:8-10; Hab 2:4), such that Old Testament saints were saved only by this one covenant of grace. Hebrews 9:15-17 explains that the covenant of grace saved those in the old covenant but that it was legally established at the death of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant.

“Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive” (Hebrews 9:15-17).

And what are the graces of this covenant of grace? They are the merits of Jesus in the covenant of redemption. Christ’s perfect obedience to the law and His death merited His resurrection life and resurrection life for all who are united to Him.

Union with Christ. The saving benefits of the covenant of redemption come to the elect in union with Him in the covenant of grace. God has blessed His people “in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). That is every single saving blessing of the Holy Spirit comes to the elect after they are united to Him. The Holy Spirit works regeneration in the elect in union with Christ. He works repentance in the elect in their union with Christ. And justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification are all in union with Christ. Every blessing of the Holy Spirit comes at the point in time when the elect are united to Christ.

How does the covenant of grace undo the lawlessness of Adam in the covenant of works? The covenant of grace reverses Adam’s lawlessness and the lawlessness of His elect posterity with the two blessings, of justification and sanctification, which Calvin called the “duplex gratia.”

The Duplex Gratia: Undoing Lawlessness

Justification. In union with Christ, God imputes the perfect righteousness of Christ, earned by His perfect obedience to the law in the covenant of redemption, to His people for their justification. Jesus obeyed the law and paid its penalty; therefore, when the elect are united to Him and His righteousness, they receive His justification. They receive justification by faith alone and not by works because Christ has done all the works necessary to merit justification. In the context of union with Christ in the covenant of grace, Paul says, “If because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jess Christ” (Rom 5:17). The elect consciously accept Christ’s righteousness by faith in union with Him, but even their faith is a fruit and purchase of His perfect meritorious righteousness (2 Pet 1:1). The term “justification” here stands for every objective blessing. Adoption and positional sanctification are merited by Christ’s work in the covenant of redemption in the same way.

Sanctification. In union with Christ, God regenerates and produces a progressive holiness in believers on the basis of Christ’s merits in the covenant of redemption (Rom 8:10). Christ’s work in the covenant of redemption earned life and freedom from sin and its miseries for His chosen bride, which is why the Spirit gives the elect freedom from actual sins in the covenant of grace. That means, He makes them to walk in His law (Rom 8:4). They freely and willingly keep the Ten Commandments from the heart. In Hebrews 8:10 God says that in this covenant of grace “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts.”

The Second London Baptist Confession speaks of the covenant of grace: “Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, His Holy Spirit to make them willing and able to believe” (7.2).

Summary Conclusion

The Covenant of Works: The Law as a Covenant
Adam broke the law of God in the covenant of works and brought the curse of condemnation and actual sinfulness upon himself and his posterity.

The Covenant of Redemption: The Gospel Accomplished
But Christ obeyed the law of God in the covenant of redemption and purchased the resurrection life of justification (a righteous law status) and holiness (actual lawfulness) for His people.

The Covenant of Grace: The Gospel Applied
The Holy Spirit applies Christ to God’s chosen people by uniting them to Christ in the covenant of grace and giving them the double blessing of justification and sanctification. In justification, the law’s curse is cancelled and righteousness is imputed, giving them the right and title to eternal life. In sanctification, the Spirit works actual holy obedience to God’s good law, making them more and more like Christ for their joy and His glory.

Thus covenant theology preserves justification, which is at the heart of the gospel, and it preserves sanctification, which is likewise one of the gospel’s very precious promises. Those who love the Reformed understanding of the gospel should not neglect the Reformed doctrine of the covenants. There is richness and life to be found here.

Source: Covenant Theology: The Law, Justification, and Sanctification

John Macarthur: Tithing, Women Elders, Calvinism vs Arminianism

– Episode 2253 –

John Macarthur: Tithing, Women Elders, Calvinism vs Arminianism

Segment 1 (00:00) – The tithe amount in the New Testament

Segment 2 (09:56) – Women elders is actually a question of scriptural authority

Segment 3 (19:56) – Offending everybody else!

Wretched Surprise! (26:09) – Grace Gem, Henry, Meekness

The post John Macarthur: Tithing, Women Elders, Calvinism vs Arminianism appeared first on Wretched.

The Theology of the Thief

Luke 23:39-43

Code: B180323

What is a theologian?

For many in the church, it’s an intimidating term applied only to spiritually elite believers. It’s an achieved status—one earned through years of seminary, writing, and the other exploits of ivory tower academics.

But that is not a biblical distinction. The truth is, everyone is a theologian.

In simple terms, theology is what we believe about God. And in that sense, everyone has a particular theological perspective. Practically speaking, even atheists are theologians.

The real question then is not who is or isn’t a theologian, but what is the quality of a given person’s theology? Is it biblically based and doctrinally sound? Or is it a carelessly constructed hash of worldly wisdom and pseudo-scriptural ideas? Perhaps even more tragic are those who fight for precision on peripheral theological issues while confusing and corrupting the essentials.

We must not make the mistake of assuming we can spot good theologians by their clerical garb or credentials. We have to measure them by their fidelity to the gospel. On the other hand, if they’re wrong about the gospel, they might as well be wrong about everything.

In Luke 23 we observe an encounter between Christ and a truly great theologian. His brief, four-verse cameo succinctly communicates a tremendous wealth of doctrinal truth. In fact, widely-celebrated scholars have spent thousands of pages muddling what this man clearly enunciated in three short sentences.

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)

The thief on the cross presents us with a basic but powerful systematic theology. His words give us a synopsis of essential gospel truth.

The Fear of the Lord

The first essential truth the repentant thief (from now on referred to as “the thief”) understood was that God should be feared. In fact, his first recorded words are a stern rebuke to the unrepentant thief: “Do you not fear God?” (Luke 23:40). John MacArthur points out that this sudden outburst represented a startling change considering both thieves had earlier hurled insults at Christ in unison (Matthew 27:44).

He confronted the tragic condition that only moments before had been his own. In a moment, he went from being part of it to being unable to comprehend it. He was convicted by the Holy Spirit that he was a violator of God’s law. By his own admission, his sentence from a human judge