|The Gospel of Godís Grace #1
Proclaiming the Grace of God
August 31, 1997 / Romans 1:1-17
Today I begin a series of sermons designed to make "The Gospel of Godís Grace" come alive in your life. Whether you are fourteen, forty-four, or ninety-four, this series is for you. There is a way for you to link to it, participate in it, and be blessed by it.
At one level, all you have to do is show up to meet this theme. Today I am going to give you the background, setting, and theme of the grandest epistle of the New Testament. Then, beginning two weeks from today and continuing through February of next year, the focus for my sermons will be "The Gospel of Godís Grace" as expounded by the Apostle to the Gentiles in his most sublime epistle.
At the next level, I hope you will involve yourself in a personal study of Romans in your own daily study time or in one of the many small groups in our church family. If you are not already linked to one of the study groups but want to be, we are making the effort to give you the chance to connect. Terry Smith has trained a new body of group facilitators ó to join the sixty or so already in place ó who will be forming their groups next week.
Today you will get a list of all existing and ready-to-form small groups. The list will name the facilitators of each group and give the day and time of its meeting. You can look over the list in preparation for next Sunday. During the Bible class hour next Lordís Day, all the small-group leaders will be available in this room to answer questions about their groups and to sign up new participants. We really hope that no group will have more than ten members as you begin this series. Groups that have already grown larger than ten are being asked to consider "birthing" a new group from its ranks. A large group loses something of the dynamic that works best in smaller ones. Next Sunday, you can sign up to be a group member ó if you wish to do so.
Our small groups will be using Max Lucadoís In the Grip of Grace as a resource tool. The back of the book contains a discussion guide, and the sermons I preach will track along with the succession of texts in Maxís book. The sermon, the chapter in the book, your personal reflection, and the group interaction with Romans will have a profound effect on you. I guarantee it. It will change your life!
Romans: A Life-Changing Study
At a crisis time in his life in the year 386, thirty-two-year-old Augustine ó destined to become one of the formative theologians of the Western church ó was captivated by the call of Romans. With his moral and spiritual life is chaos, it was a text from Romans that convinced him that the love of God could reach to him.
In 1516 Martin Luther, thirty-two himself at the time, was in his personal crisis. Despairing of a God he had been taught to see as angry and terrifying, he read Romans 1:17 and came to understand "the righteousness of God" no longer as Godís just act of punishing sinners but his wholly merciful act of saving sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
William Tyndale, the great Bible translator, urged those who read his English version to pay special attention to Romans. In a prologue to the epistle, he urged that it be learned by heart. "The more it is studied, the easier it is," he wrote. "The more it is chewed, the pleasanter it is."
In 1738 it was John Wesley who found deliverance through this epistle. Participating in what had been nicknamed the "Holy Club" because of its commitment to good deeds in an apparent appeal to God for a good conscience through good works, Wesley eventually turned from frustrating attempts at self-confidence to the full satisfaction of Christ-confidence. It was someoneís introduction of Wesley to Lutherís writings on Romans that put him on a new course of awareness of Godís true nature and work.
Romans has been the discovery ground for many a struggling, groping soul. Hearts pained by their own sense of inadequacy have discovered the truth of Godís total sufficiency of grace through Jesus. People in anguish over the sense that they hadnít "done enough" have found the truth that God has done more than enough at Calvary.
I used to have this terrible dream. It was Judgment Day, and I was standing before the throne. I didnít feel particularly confident. I was plagued by the fear that I might have gotten something wrong in my theology. I was worried that I might have died with an unrecognized or unresolved sin still in my catalog of personal behaviors. But my greatest fear was that I would simply have missed something ó after all, there are so many lines and laws in the Bible!
I was greatly comforted recently to read Stephen Brown confess to a similar dream. But his recurring dream came to a conclusion that I was able to reach only in my waking hours of study, rethinking, and recasting my theology to make it more biblical. In Brownís dream, Godís voice is heard from the throne telling the world awaiting its Judge: "I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that you were all wrong and some of you were terribly wrong. The good news is that My Son took care of it all on the cross . . . so, welcome home!"
Brown then quoted Jack Miller: "All biblical theology can be summed up in two sentences. (1) Cheer up, youíre a lot worse than you think you are and (2) Cheer up, Godís grace is a lot bigger than you think it is." Thatís the gospel of the grace of God in Romans put in a nutshell. And itís what we will be studying for several months ó with a holiday break for Christmas.
Some Background Information
Near the end of a three-year ministry at Ephesus, Paul was making plans to go to Rome (Acts 19:21). Leaving Ephesus late in A.D. 56, he was headed to Jerusalem with a collection for the needy believers there (Rom. 15:25-26) and intended next to visit Rome (Rom. 15:23). It is clear from Romans 15:24 that he was hoping the church at Rome would sponsor him for missionary work in Spain and regions further West.
Paul had never visited Rome, but he knew of the churchís reputation and was eager to visit it. The church had been established there no later than A.D. 48, for that is when Claudius banished the Jews from the Imperial City because of "disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" (Suetonius, Claudius 25; cf. Acts 18:2). In July of A.D. 64, Christians were numerous enough and well-enough known at Rome that Nero blamed a great fire that destroyed a major section of the city on them and started a persecution of the church. Tacitus, an early second-century Roman historian, said there was "an immense multitude" of Christians in Rome at the time of the fire.
Paulís travel from Ephesus toward Jerusalem was delayed by three months while he ministered at Corinth (Acts 20:1-3). The fact that Paul sent the letter we are reading to Rome by Phoebe, a servant of the church in the Corinthian seaport town of Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1-2), and that he mentions other persons associated with Corinth ó Gaius (Rom. 16:23; cf. 1 Cor. 1:14) and Erastus (Rom. 16:23; cf. 2 Tim. 4:20) ó as his companions when he wrote it leads most scholars to place its writing at Corinth in the winter months of A.D. 56 and 57.
Romans is unique among Paulís epistles. It is not a response to problems, a reply to attacks against his ministry, or an exhortation to a failing church. It is a letter in advance of his planned visit to Rome to introduce himself, explain the message he had been preaching (lest his enemies misrepresent it!), and let them know of his future plans for Spain. If he wanted to involve them as a support base for his work, they would need to know something about the man and his message. Thus the epistle was written as a systematic presentation of the gospel as Paul understood and taught it.
In summary, the message Paul outlines in this epistle is that justification ó a legal term that denoted the passing of a favorable verdict on the accused, acquitting him ó is not the earned reward of human effort but the free gift of God to all who will accept it through faith in Godís Son. The first seventeen verses of the first chapter of Romans constitute an introduction and theme statement for all that will follow. They present Paulís view of himself, his readers, and his message.
Paulís View of Himself
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God ó 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. Through him and for his nameís sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith (Rom. 1:1-5).
Did you catch the term Paul used of himself? It is not the boasting title of a clergyman claiming privilege but the humble self-description of a man who knows his place relative to God and men. He is "a servant (Gk, doulos = slave) of Christ Jesus." And what was his servant-role to Christ? He had been "called to be an apostle" (Gk, apostolos = someone commissioned to a special task). And what was his mission? He had been "set apart for the gospel of God" ó to model it, preach it, explain it.
At his first use of the term "gospel" in this epistle, Paul launches into a series of wonderful affirmations concerning it. First, his gospel message is the outcome of the combined work of the full Godhead ó "promised beforehand" by the Father, brought to fulness in the Son of God (who was also a Son of David), and affirmed to all mankind by the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Second, the gospel offers Jesus as Lord of all. And, third, it demands "the obedience that comes from faith" of all who claim Jesus to be their Lord. The perfected redemption offered in the gospel requires us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, not in some vague way but in the serious obedience that authentic faith always produces.
The apostle was himself a recipient of the grace that his apostleship called him to offer to others. Nobody can preach sobriety like a recovering drunk, and nobody can preach gospel like a man acutely conscious of grace.
Paul was a sinner redeemed by grace. He was a blasphemer turned confessor. He was a denier become a proclaimer. He was an enemy who had been turned into a friend ó no, more, a member of the family. With a sense of humility for his status as a saved man, he also sensed the power of Godís call on his life to fulfill his apostolic commission as a man "set apart" for the gospel of Godís grace.
But letís turn for a moment to his readers. How did Paul view the Romans?
Paulís View of the Romans
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.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 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 Godís 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 ó that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each otherís faith. 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 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 (Rom. 1:6-15).
Paul belonged to God, but so did the brothers and sisters at Rome. Though he was a Jew and most of them were Gentiles, he knew they were "loved by God" and that they had also been "called" by him ó called to be saints (i.e., consecrated to God). He knew their reputation and respected the fact that a church in the empireís capital city was a beacon of light. Indeed, their faith was a topic of discussion all over the Roman world. It was not merely Caesarís decrees but also Godís gospel that went forth from Rome because of those faithful believers.
Paul wanted to go to Rome both to give and receive encouragement from the saints there. Indeed, he had a sense of obligation to them. He wanted to "preach the gospel" to them. Ah, but more must be said about that gospel before going further. So Paul writes the theme verses of the epistle.
Paulís View of the Gospel
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" (Rom. 1:16-17).
Walk with me through this glorious affirmation.
First, "I am not ashamed of the gospel." Paul had many things in his past that could have caused him a deep sense of shame ó just as all of us do. But God had lifted Paulís eyes from his own insufficiency to heavenís full sufficiency for him. So Paul had relinquished shame for joy, guilt for pardon, legalism for grace, hell for heaven. Ashamed of the gospel? Indeed not, for it had set Paul free from all the things that would have been his undoing. It set his feet on the solid rock of Godís sure promise.
Second, the gospel "is the power of God for salvation." The gospel is not rules and regulations. It is not a self-realization manual or guide to personal achievement. It is not connecting people with their inner resources. It is the revelation of how Godís power can work in us to do what we cannot do. What human effort could never do, God has done in Christ.
Third, this wonderful story of grace is for "everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." The gospel of Godís grace is universal truth, and in that fact alone is a sufficient mandate for every generation of believers to proclaim it. Paul had the call of God on his life and an apostolic commission; we have the call of God on our lives and an abiding command to tell this story to the world until Jesus comes back to claim the fruits that have come from its proclamation.
Fourth, "in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed." The term "righteousness" can refer to right behaviors and noble achievements. And while Paul sometimes uses the word that way, the word most often means "right-standing with God" in this epistle. God is always "in the right" because of his holiness, and I am "in the wrong" because of my sinfulness. I cannot get "in the right" so as to have "right-standing with God" because I canít perform enough "right behaviors and noble achievements" to fix my wrongness. But the gospel reveals a way to be put right through a free gift from God that does not depend on my performance. And how do I get this gift of right-standing?
Fifth, Romans tells how righteousness "is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ĎThe righteous will live by faith.í " Righteousness doesnít come by birth; it is for neither Jew nor Gentile alone, but for both. Righteousness doesnít come by right-living and good works. Righteousness doesnít come through law or law-keeping. It comes only through faith (i.e., trust) in the work God has done through Christ and in no other way. To quote Paul from another of his epistles: "[I want to] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ ó the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Phil. 3:9). Received by faith, it is lived out by faith. In fact, the Christian life is by faith from the first step of repentance to the final step through heavenís gates ó with every step (e.g., prayer, baptism, worship, character transformation, etc.) along the way a step of faith showing itself in love for the God who has given such a gift. As the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk said long ago, the only people whom God regards as put right with himself are those who can live by faith in him.
The understanding of our present-day mission as the people of God would be clearer if we saw ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel as Paul did. As we begin to study Romans, we are reminded to be humble as creatures before our Creator and to see ourselves as debtors to all. And the one thing about which we need feel no shame before our neighbors ó for their need of salvation is identical to our own ó is the gospelís message of saving power available to all humankind.
Romans is the Bible in microcosm, the gospel story in abridged form. It is Paulís testimony to the gospel of Godís grace. Do you remember Jack Millerís succinct summary offered earlier: "All biblical theology can be summed up in two sentences (1) Cheer up, youíre a lot worse than you think you are and (2) Cheer up, Godís grace is a lot bigger than you think it is"?
Where sin abounds (i.e., in you and me), grace abounds all the more (i.e., in Christ). For all your inability to fix what is wrong in your experience, God is sufficient to make you new all over. If you will trust him, he will perform the same miracle of grace in your life that he wrought in Paulís.
Thatís gospel. Thatís nothing to be ashamed of. Thatís something you donít want to miss. Thatís Godís offer to you today.
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