Sermon 2017 01 08 AM

08.01.17 AM Sermon                        "An Introduction to Paul's letter to the Romans"

We have just heard some of the apostle Peter's second letter read to us, and I want to use this as a starting point - in order to explain the importance of the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, before we begin to consider the actual letter itself.

Peter asserts that Paul's writing is to be considered on par with the rest of the Scriptures given to us by God.

Paul, Peter says, writes and teaches with the wisdom that God has given him (2 Peter 3:15)

Now, Peter admits that Paul's teaching is not the easiest to understand, but understand his teaching we must.

Indeed, he warns that there is a danger from some who would use scripture for their own ends, of distortion leading to destruction.

(2 Peter 3:16) "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."

As we consider Paul's letter to the Christian church in Rome we must approach it and handle it as it truly is - the Word of God to us, we must approach and respect it as Scripture inspired by the Spirit.

It is certainly the case that in the history of the church, Paul's letter to the Romans has been one of the most influential parts of the Bible.

A. Influence of Romans

Irenaeus (AD 130-202)

This influence of Romans on the early church can be seen in the writings of one of the great thinkers of the early church, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, modern day France.

Irenaeus, who lived in the latter part of the second century AD, had a true affinity for Paul’s teachings.

Irenaeus’ doctrine of salvation was centered in Christ’s life and death, and he emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit as the means of living the Christian life.

Irenaeus’ answer to the question of why Christ came from heaven was “that He might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man” (Against Heresies, III, 18, 7).

Like Paul, Irenaeus saw the coming of Christ in the flesh as absolutely essential to salvation.

On the basis of Romans 8:3-4, Irenaeus stated, “The law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it, for sin did not hold sway over spirit but over man. For He who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man” (Ibid., V, 15).

So, Irenaeus’ teaching on salvation and the Christian life reflects the strong influence of Romans upon him in the early church and therefore the belief and life of the church onwards.

Augustine (AD 354-430)

Romans was instrumental in the conversion of the early and great church father and theologian Augustine.

It was through reading Romans 13:13-14 that Augustine came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Augustine tells his story in his Confessions:

At the time of his conversion, he was deeply distraught because his attempts to live a good moral life had been a failure. But on one occasion he was in a garden and heard a voice saying, “Take and read.” The voice sounded like that of a child, and Augustine rushed back to where a friend was sitting in the garden. There he had left a copy of Paul’s letters. Immediately he picked up the volume and read the first words that his eyes fell upon: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” He had no need to read further. Through these verses, God transformed Augustine and flooded his heart with the assurance that he was a child of God (VIII, 463-67).

Martin Luther & the Reformation (1483-1546)

Romans was crucial to Martin Luther's insights that led to the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation was the movement that led to the rejection of the pope’s absolute authority and to the stand that the Scripture is the sole authority for faith and practice.

At first, the movement’s effort was to reform the existing (what is now the Catholic) church according to New Testament teachings.

However, the church leaders’ reluctance to reform then led to the subsequent establishment of Protestant denominations.

This tremendous renewal of the church began while Martin Luther was a professor of Bible at a seminary in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther, along with his students, began to read Romans and to set aside the misinterpretations that had been imposed on it by the church.

As Luther and his students did this, they began to grasp the true meaning of the gospel.

Only gradually did Luther come to understand the revolutionary significance of what he was reading.

At first the Book of Romans spoke to him personally, "liberating his soul from the agonies and frustrations of doubt and establishing his Christian life on the solid and enduring ground of the gospel."

But soon Luther became convinced that the teaching and practices of the church of his day were clearly in contradiction to the gospel, which he had first discovered in Romans and later in the whole of the Scriptures.

In Luther's preface to his study of Romans, he asserts: "This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes."

John (1703-1791) & Charles (1707-1788) Wesley

Two centuries later, there was a great need for a spiritual awakening.

An evangelical movement (known now as the Methodist movement) began under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley and other Christians.

Aware of the noticeable spiritual decline, a group of people who were deeply troubled by the condition of the church gathered together in London, England.

They met in a house on Aldersgate Street to listen to the reading of Luther’s commentary on Romans.

John Wesley was present that evening. As he listened, his heart was “strangely warmed.”

Luther's interpretation of Romans, brought the transforming power of the gospel to bear on Wesley’s life.

From that time on, he was profoundly influenced by Romans, particularly as he developed his theology and preached the gospel, and throughout his ministry the spiritual awakening that began in England reached America and had a tremendous impact on revitalizing the life of the Christian church.

But more than that, it changed the way the entrance into the Christian life was viewed by a majority of American churches - many churches began to emphasize faith as being vital to a conversion experience, to transforming and regenerative change, and to entering the kingdom of God.

So, Romans played a key part in the spiritual and theological renewal of the church in Europe and America.

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Romans continued to have a growing significance through a pastor by the name of Karl Barth.

During the First World War, Barth was a young Swiss pastor who became deeply dissatisfied with the way liberal scholars in German universities were presenting the gospel.

As a result, he began to study Romans and preach and teach it.

A man of amazing ability and vitality, with a Christ-centered, Trinitarian approach to the Scriptures, Barth wrote two commentaries on Romans prior to leaving his ten-year pastorate for a professorship. Over a span of sixty years, in total he wrote three commentaries and many studies on specific passages of the letter. The effect of his influence was felt beyond Switzerland and Germany and had a decisive impact on some areas of church life in America.

In his commentaries, Barth proposed the idea that the Christian faith was usually blended with the present-day national culture and the result of such blending was that values of faith and values of the world were often viewed by the church as being the same. Such blending of the gospel and the world’s values reinforced the self-confidence of modern people, but it failed to remind them that they were still under divine judgment with the need for true repentance from sin.

Barth wanted humankind to understand what God thought about them and the way that God had come to them - God’s Word had become flesh in Jesus Christ. Christianity was not a human religion, but divine revelation—not the word of man, but the Word of God.

For Barth, the message of Romans is this: "Let God be God".

Throughout his life, Barth remained a student of God’s Word and continued to grow in his grasp of the faith.

But never did he think that he had fully fathomed the depth of God’s message in Romans.

In the preface to A Shorter Commentary on Romans, his third commentary, he says, “After all, there is always something new to learn from the Epistle of Romans” (1959, 8).

So, countless Christians, down through the centuries, have come to a greater understanding of the glory of the gospel through reading and studying this epistle to the Romans.

In the opinion of Jesuit scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, the book "overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father."

Because, Romans is a long, sometimes complex letter, this daunting fact could easily put us off discovering its riches. Over the course of this year, I hope that we shall be able to mine it for the treasure that it is.

N. T. Wright notes that Romans is: "...neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breath-taking theological and spiritual vision."

For the rest of this message, I aim to give an introduction to this letter to the Christians gathered in Rome - providing some background, setting it in its context, and also to give an idea of how the letter fits together.

B. General Background to Paul's letter

The apostle Paul, wrote this letter: (1:1) "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God …" (15:15) "I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me …"

And he does this through use of his scribe Tertius, who includes his own words and greeting :                  (16:22). "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord."

It was written in the latter stages of Paul's third missionary journey (with one more after this) - 15:23-29 tells us that as he writes, Paul is planning to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome, and then eventually to Spain.

This final destination of Spain was because of his desire to make Christ known to those who had yet to come to knowledge of him. (15:20) "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation."

It is likely that Paul wrote to the Romans whilst he was in Greece for three months, before setting off on this three-stage journey (Acts 20:1-3).

It is most like that this was in Corinth, probably while he was staying in the house of Gaius.

We learn that Phoebe (Rom 16:1) was a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, a port to the east of Corinth, and she would have been able to convey the letter to Rome after passing through Corinth and taking a ship from Corinth’s west port.

Erastus, mentioned in Romans 16:23, also lived in Corinth, being the city's commissioner for public works and city treasurer at various times, again indicating that the letter was written in Corinth.

Following his letter, Paul did finally reach Rome, where, although under guard, he preached the gospel for two years (Acts 28:11-31).

We cannot be certain how the church in Rome was founded: the most likely scenario is that Roman Jews converted at Pentecost brought their faith in Messiah Jesus back with them to their home synagogues.

And from there perhaps many Gentiles became Christians through their witness.

However, the majority of the Jewish Christians would most likely have left Rome at the order of the Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49.

So, by the time this letter was written in about A.D. 57, though some Jews would have returned, overall the church in Rome would have been comprised of a majority of Gentiles.

Paul's concerns in this letter seem to reflect addressing this Gentile/Jewish balance.

C. The purpose of Paul's letter

This is been the subject of much debate, but unlike many of Paul's other letters, there seems to be no single issue that the letter as a whole is addressing.

The church in Rome is not dominated by problems, as was the case in Corinth, which led Paul to write two long letters to the Corinthians.

Indeed, at both ends of Romans, Paul acknowledges the spiritual well-being of the Roman Christians (1:8) "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." - Wouldn't that be great for us as a church to be described in this way?

(15:14)"I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another."

So, the question is, why does he write to them at such length?

Three purposes emerge from the letter, although none by itself is adequate as an explanation.

1. Paul is gathering support for his trip to Spain.

Paul explicitly states this intention in 15:24.

(15:23-24) "But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while."

You see, for his fourth missionary trip to Spain he would have needed substantial support and it would have been natural for Paul to try to enlist the help of the Roman community - which was on his way.

The rest of the letter, therefore, provides the background and the motivation for enlisting their partnership in his work - It is only as the Romans understand the scope and wonder of the good news of salvation for all people, that they will they fully support such an enterprise.

2. Tension between Jews and Gentiles in the church.

The Gentile majority and the Jewish minority are clearly not accepting one another as they should, but instead are looking down on one another for various reasons.

Sadly in Christ's church, there can be divisions between individuals, peoples, and people groups - Along lines of culture, ethnicity, wealth, class, language, age … I could go on - there are many possible fault-lines.

In the church in Rome, Paul is seeking to address such a fault-line between the Jew and Gentile in Christ.

Evidence for this comes in several passages :

i. Jews boasting about spiritual heritage

First, it appears that Jews may have been bragging about their spiritual heritage (2:17–21).

"Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth - you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?"

ii. Gentiles boasting about Christian growth

Second, and more prominently, chapter 11 makes it clear that Gentile Christians are boasting over Jews because the Gospel has largely been rejected by the Jews and is now spreading rapidly among the Gentiles (11:17–32).

"If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either."

iii. Jew/Gentile point of conflict - food & festivals

Third, Paul specifically addresses a Jew/Gentile point of conflict.

In 14:1–15:13 he urges them to avoid condemning or judging one another, in the situation where some Jewish Christians are still observing some food laws and festival days.

In view of such division and difficulties Paul carefully explains the gospel.

The gospel that is powerful to save ALL people, both Jew and Gentile (1:16) "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile."

The gospel of Christ is the basis on which Paul urges the two groups to accept one another fully.

Each is to see the other as part of the same Christian family.

It is critically important that they do this, for their mutual acceptance will witness to God's work of building a united body of believers.

3. The importance of understanding the gospel

The Roman Christians have an international reputation for their faith and obedience (1:8; 16:19).

With this in mind, however, they are not to take it for granted that they know what they know.

Paul's message to them is essentially the gospel of salvation - he boldly reminds them of what they already know (15:15). "I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again …"

They are not to sit back and think they have nothing to learn or remember or live out.

Paul reminds the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:12) "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!"

So, another purpose behind Paul's letter, seems to be that these Christians should fully understand the gospel that has saved them, the gospel that he is preaching.

Regarding the purpose of Paul's letter writing, these three strands - gathering support for a fourth missionary endeavour, addressing Gentile / Jew tensions, reiterating the foundations of the gospel - are closely related.

The Roman Church will have a key part to play in the spread of the gospel.

Not only will they provide support for Paul's trip to Spain

But they also sit at the centre of the most powerful empire of the day.

This church is in a position of the greatest influence in the known world.

It is therefore vital that its members be fully and accurately grounded in the gospel.

They need to ensure they have correct understanding.

And as a result of such understanding, their lives should witness to the power of the gospel of Christ.

And in the context of the first century, nothing would have demonstrated this power more clearly than the unity among Jewish and Gentile Christians.

D. The implications for us

The urgent focus on the gospel of grace in Romans has important implications for us.

If our inclination is to think that once we have accepted the gospel we can move on to other matters, Paul reminds us that we need to go deeper into the gospel itself - we need to understand more and more of the scope and magnitude of God's grace and mercy towards us through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

However long we have been believers, if indeed we are, then this letter shows us that it is essential that we continue to meditate on what Paul has written. The gospel of grace continues to inspire and challenge.

We should take the truth of God's word to heart, trusting it and seeking to live in the light of it.

Then, the things that Paul most desires is to see will be made manifest. What things?

i. Lives being transformed in obedience to God

ii. A church that is genuinely united

iii. The gospel being spread to all people

iv. God being glorified.

If we take Paul's letter to heart and mind and put it into action, these will become our highest priorities also.

John Calvin said that "if we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of scripture".

My hope is that, over the course of this year and perhaps beyond, as we read and grow in our understanding of this weighty epistle, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will see lives being transformed in obedience to God, see a growing unity of Christ's church, see the gospel being spread to all people and above all see God being glorified.

 


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