Updated: Jan 14
In an earlier post I attempted to make clear the singular problem that plagues our world. While I expect the unbelieving world to avoid and reject this biblical diagnosis, it grieves me to no end how many professing Christians are turning their backs to Scripture and chasing after myths. Their excuses range from outright rejection of the gospel’s sufficiency to transform hearts and lives to inconsistent and incoherent reasoning as they march with the mobs yet keep their churches closed.
What must the church of Jesus Christ be told in these ridiculous and mindless times? Where must we point our people so that they disengage from the madness and refocus their eyes on Christ? How can the bride of Jesus Christ be unified? Paul’s letter to the church in Rome seems most fitting.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome for a very simple reason: they were a divided congregation. The church as founded with an almost exclusive Jewish congregation who likely heard the gospel preached in Jerusalem by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). After returning home from the festival pilgrimage they began meeting together as Jewish followers of Messiah, Jesus Christ. You might imagine the tension of being a Jewish believer in the center of the pagan world. There would be obvious hesitation to be associated with pagan Gentiles, but now that they have expressed belief in Jesus as the long awaited Messiah (the man whom the Jewish leaders had crucified) there is also a lack of kinship with fellow (if not unbelieving) Jews. What is a Jewish believer to do? Where are the lines to be drawn?
In 49 A.D. Roman Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:1). The church was now exclusively Gentile, having added a few Romans to their gathering. Upon the Emperor’s death the Roman Jews began to return but found a very different gathering than the one they had left. The returning Jews are not accepted by their kinsmen due to their faith yet no longer have control over the church they had left. How are they to be unified with these Gentiles? Should they pick up and create an exclusive Jewish church? How can these two bodies be unified? This is the context of Paul’s letter to this strongly divided church in Rome.
A Single Mission (1:16-17)
After his customary introduction, Paul tells the Christians in Rome (both Jew and Gentile) that he desires to come to them so that he can be encouraged by them (v. 12) and so that he can preach the gospel to them (v. 15). That’s right, Paul desires to preach the gospel to those who have already been redeemed. The gospel is for believers too. But what is this gospel?
“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
This gospel – or good news – is itself God’s power that makes possible the salvation of all (Jew and Gentile) who believe it. But there is a question that needs to be asked: salvation from what? Both Jew and Gentile are in need of salvation from the wrath of God (v. 18).
A Single Problem (1:18-3:20)
If the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel which saves, the wrath of God is revealed in the unrighteousness of mankind.
Pagans Are Damned Sinners (1:18-32) – The rest of chapter one is aimed at pagan Gentiles who have seen and beheld the glory of God as revealed in creation and yet suppress the truth in unrighteousness, turn their collective backs on the creator, and worship idols fashioned to represent the creation. As a result of the corporate rebellion, God gave them over to their heart’s desire. Immorality, homosexuality, rebellion, disobedience, pride, and murder are collective evidence of God’s wrath upon humanity that has refused to acknowledge Him as God.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this only refers to the crudest and most ancient forms of paganism. These verses accurately describe our own society. We worship a god made in the image of ourselves and God’s wrath is evident in our society in precisely the way Paul describes it here. The godless hate God, so God turns them over to pursue their heart’s desire so that they can chase after their own destruction. Pagans are damned and in desperate need of salvation from God’s wrath.
Jews Are Damned Sinners (2:1-3:8) – Before the Jews in the congregation get too big of a head, Paul turns his sights on them. Their problem is not that they refuse to acknowledge God, but that they have failed to worship and obey Him. He has given them His law, the holy Scriptures, yet they did not keep them. Their problem is not ignorance, but obedience.
Moses made it clear that obedience and conformity to the law goes well beyond what we do and don’t do. Obedience (and disobedience for that matter) begins in the heart. Jesus made the same point in Matthew 5. The mantra of “it’s ok to look, but don’t touch” is just as damnable.
Again, don’t be fooled into thinking this is only applicable to 1st century Jewish Christians living in Rome. Those of us who feel morally superior to the godless mob because we have a firm moral compass are just as guilty. We say, “do not steal,” yet have we desired what does not belong to us? We say, “do not murder,” yet have we hated someone in our hearts? We are therefore breakers of the law. “Moral” man is damned and in desperate need of salvation from God’s wrath.
All Are Damned Sinners (3:9-20) – In case you haven’t been counting, Paul has condemned the whole of humanity. But just in case we might find a loophole, Paul shuts every mouth. He quotes from Psalms 5, 10, 14, 36, 53, 140 and Isaiah 59 to ensure his audience understand that there is not a single person past, present, or future who seeks after God, who is righteous, or is good. The goodness of man is a myth. All of humanity is damned and in desperate need of salvation from God’s wrath.
Both Jew and Gentile believers in Rome are unified in their past condition. They were both equally joined in the fraternity of the damned.
A Single Solution (3:21-5:21)
The word “gospel” literally means good news. But news is only good if the situation is bad. Otherwise it’s just…news. The situation could not be worse. So, what is this good news?
“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 of which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” (3:21-25)
Simply put, Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners damned to die. There was an exchange that took place on Calvary’s cross. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, suffered, died, and rose again so that those who place the faith and trust in His accomplishment will be given His righteousness. Or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” – 2 Cor. 5:21
Sola Fide (4:1-25) – How can man receive this righteousness? Surely man must do something; make a pilgrimage, donate money, or help little old ladies across the street. Paul says no. We are made right before God through faith alone.
Using the example of Abraham, he calls his readers to ask the question: when and how was Abraham made righteous? God made Abraham a promise and Abraham believed God. It was because of his belief – or faith – that God credited righteousness to his account. He did not earn it through piety or magnificent works. It was a gracious gift on the basis of faith alone.
Solus Christus (5:1-21) – Faith requires an object. What is it that we must believe in order to obtain this righteousness from God? We must believe that Jesus Christ undid what Adam began. Just as a single man, Adam, plunged the entire human race into sin and damnation, Jesus Christ redeemed all who believe in Him. One act of rebellion damned all. One act of obedience redeemed all who believe. Our salvation from God’s wrath is in Christ alone.
A Single Destiny (6:1-11:36)
What does all this mean then? If we are saved from God’s wrath, does it really matter how we live the rest of our lives? Must we bother with unity? The next several chapters speak to this very point.
Freed from Sin (6:1-23) – What kind of sense would it make for those who have been saved from God’s wrath to continue to live in the same manner that earned God’s wrath? That makes no sense at all! Those who reject the gospel are slaves of sin and death. They are incapable of not sinning. But when Christ redeemed us, He set us free from the bondage of sin and made us slaves of righteousness. We have a master, King Jesus. We have been freed from death so that we might serve the Lord of life.
Freed from the Law (7:1-25) – What about the Law? If obeying the Law is useless to save, then why should we bother with it now? The Law itself does not make something good. God’s perfect Law reflects His perfect nature. This is a guide and a tutor for us as it clearly marks the line between sin and righteousness. God’s Law (and the laws of men as they ought to be) paint the world in strict black and white so that we can see what is righteous and what is not. But even as redeemed men and women we cannot keep God’s righteous standard. All of our attempts to try harder, do more, or be better will end in utter frustration. The Law is good and righteous and holy because it continually throws us down upon our knees before our good and gracious savior.
Freed in the Spirit (8:1-39) – It is for this reason that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” It is He who has set us free from body of this death! We are His possessions and have been adopted as beloved sons and daughters by God through Christ. In fact, we are joint heirs with Christ! Those who have been saved from God’s wrath through faith in Christ are joined together. There is tremendous unity in Christ Jesus!
Freed on Purpose for a Purpose (9:1-11:36) – Does this reality make null and void God’s earlier promises to the Jews and the nation of Israel? Not at all! He will never forsake His promise to the patriarchs because He has explicitly chosen the specific line of Jacob from Isaac and Abraham. God has specifically chosen those whom He will redeem for His glory. Then why is Israel not repenting? God has purposefully and partially hardened the hearts of Israel so that Gentiles would come to hear and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. The fact that there are even now Jews within the congregation of the redeemed saints in Rome is proof positive that God has and always will reserve a remnant for Himself. He has chosen His people and He will redeem His people. We are united in Him.
A Single Application (12:1-15:13)
The beginning of chapter twelve marks a transition from what you need to know into what you need to do. As a united body of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul commands them to forsake the world and its allurements and devote themselves as living and daily sacrifices to Almighty God.
Devoted to the Church (12:3-8) – Paul compares the church to a single body with many members. A body that is missing appendages or has limbs locked in paralysis is not a very effective body. God has granted each member, each individual, gifts for the purpose of serving the body. It matters not where they’re from. They must be devoted to a unified body.
Love the Church (12:9-13) – This unity requires and assumes genuine love for each other. To love requires action and desires the best for others. This unified body is to serve each other and be devoted to each other as they collectively serve the Lord.
Love of Neighbor (12:14-13:7) – This love must overflow into society. The church is forbidden from seeking their own vengeance but commanded to make every attempt to live at peace within a society of God-haters. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He commanded His disciples to let their light so shine before men that they may see their good works and glorify their Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). God has placed governing officials in place for the expressed purpose of punishing evil men. Let them do their job. Moreover, make sure that you don’t become one of those evildoers requiring God’s wrath to be poured down on you via the governing officials. Besides, isn’t the wrath of God what we have been saved from?
Love Each Other (13:8-15:13) – These final sections make clear how these individual members must live in order to be unified as a single body. In essence they are to identify the things that don’t amount to a hill of beans and be ready to prefer their brothers over themselves. This is not doctrinal triage, where we take the Bible and cut out the portions we disagree on. The Scriptures are our basis for unity! Rather we are to consider our social and personal customs and be ready to lay them aside in order to forge unity in the only thing that unites – the gospel of Jesus Christ!
The Christian who looks for unity with this world is a dangerous fool. He’s a fool to think that this world will accept one who is marked by Christ, the One whom they hate. He is dangerous because he will undoubtedly compromise the faith in order to appease the mob.
There is unity in one thing and one thing only: the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is not a simplistic message but a simple message with profoundly deep theological roots. Christians are not united in shared experiences, backgrounds, creeds, or colors. Christians are united in a common faith. The deeper these expressions of faith run the tighter the bonds of unity.
The call for Christ’s church is clear: Preach the Word! The more God’s word is preached – proclaimed with boldness, articulated with clarity, and explained with precision – the more unified Christ’s church will become. All who fall away are chaff before the wind. Soli Deo Gloria!