The Berean Series:
The Letter to the Romans
Paying the Debt of the Gospel
Let Us Examine Together: Romans 1:1-15
I am thankful to God for being able to write again. In a sense, I feel as if I am like the Apostle Paul because I am writing to an audience I do not know. I am a seminary student that was called by God in his son Jesus to enter into the pastoral ministry. The gospel is the beautiful story of God’s saving of broken and evil people through the willing death of His own Son in the place of His enemies, being declared righteous by his resurrection, and ascending into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father. All the benefits of what the risen LORD has done are given to us out of God’s free grace; we are declared righteous by embracing Christ alone, adopted into God’s family, and set apart for good works. Because of this gospel we wait for the eternal glory that awaits us when Christ returns to judge the world.
Whatever trust you have of me in what I’m writing is gathered from whatever trust you place in the 1646 Covenanters. The Apostle Paul writes to the same kind of audience. He writes to a group of people who at best may have heard of him but certainly they never met him. Their only contact with him is through the messenger who would have carried this letter ahead of him. There are obviously some trust issues here. Should we trust this guy named Paul? What are his credentials? Is he orthodox? If he were to write today, we in the reformed world would probably ask, “But is he reformed?” Paul’s description of himself is fascinating. This is the longest description of himself in all of his letters. What’s even more interesting is that his description of himself is not even about him, but of what we know as the gospel. The letter to the Romans was a cold call. Paul did not know the Roman Christians but he longed to meet them. For a long time, the Apostle was hindered from going to Rome but sees now that God has finally made a way. Paul sends this letter ahead so that the Roman Christians may get acquainted to their apostle that they have yet to see.
Many throughout history have been influenced by the apostle Paul. But, of all his writings, the letter to the Romans can be said to be one of the most influential. From Augustine to Luther and from Luther to the Puritans, the letter of Romans shaped not only the theological landscape of the West, but also went on to permeate all strata of western society. Some have come to question whether the letter to the Romans ought to even be read as a treatise on theology. Their observations have been helpful in showing that the letter to the Romans is not a theological treatise but a letter. Approaching the letter from the letter-genre perspective is helpful because it catches nuances that treating it as a theological treatise does it. It would be like someone reading an email from their wife as an academic paper. Looking at the letter as a letter does not somehow diminish the beauty of the theological truths found within. One cannot escape the fact that there are just so many beautiful, deep, and powerful truths that do not appear elsewhere in the way that it does here.
So what gives? Well, if we read the apostle Paul’s introduction to his letters we see that he often gives us the reason why he writes. Here in Romans, Paul writes that his intent in writing is to make the Romans aware that it was always his intention to come to them in order to “reap some harvest” among them. The reason for this is that Paul sees the spiritual gift that he is bringing (which is the sharing of each other’s faiths) as a kind of obligation. Paul sees the preaching of the gospel to the Romans as a debt to be paid. If this is in mind, then we can see the letter to the Romans as a kind of initial payment in regard to the debt of the gospel. It is for this reason that what follows is Paul’s detailed presentation of the gospel. This helps explain why we find so many amazing truths and yet can also see that this is a deeply personal letter meant to bridge the gap created by Paul’s anonymity.
There are many more things that we could cover. Many preachers wish to dwell on the content of the descriptions of the gospel in the heading. I find that although there are deep, rich truths there, it misses the overall point of the introduction. Paul’s intention was not to go into a detailed presentation in his description of himself. It was to make a quick bridge of connection between himself and his audience. But all is not lost! There are some themes in Paul’s initial description that are helpful in understanding where Paul is going in his fuller presentation of the gospel. First, Paul establishes that the gospel of God was promised beforehand by the prophets. This solidifies the continuity between the Old and New Testaments (something brother Derrick seems to be fond of). It ought to teach us that this Jesus we love did not pop out of the ground like some bizarre cabbage patch kid. Jesus’s work was not an afterthought and is in continuity with a long tradition that saw him coming to save His people. Second, we note that Paul makes a distinction between the flesh and the Spirit. This is an important theme we will return to later in the Romans series. There has been plenty of debate as to what “flesh” means but for our purposes, when you hear (or read) “flesh,” think “weakness.” The power of the Spirit and the weakness of the flesh will be pivotal in how Paul addresses the need for something more than the Law. Finally, notice that although the gospel started in the prophets, who originate from the land of Israel, it goes out into the nations where God is unknown. Paul will speak extensively to remedy the strife his own people, the Jews, have with these new, odd, and non-Jews who were previously called “unclean” and “not my people.” Why is God saving the Gentiles and why has God abandoned Israel? These are important questions that I hope we can study together. I pray that our walk through the letter to the Romans will encourage, bless, and stimulate you to share the gospel with others. I hope that the sharing of your faith will be the payment of the debt incurred by the love of God you received in Christ Jesus.