A few years ago I was one of two speakers for the Cambridge University mission. The other was an Australian evangelist, Phillip Jensen. And no-one in the Christian Union really knew either of us. So just imagine that we’d simply turned up on day one of the mission and started speaking. That wouldn’t have worked, for two reasons. One is that the Christian Union wouldn’t have been sure of us – whether we’d really preach the gospel faithfully. The other reason is that Phillip and I wouldn’t have been sure of them and whether they were really committed to the gospel and would invite and bring friends along. So what you do is to have a weekend away before the mission, where both sides can meet and where as speakers you can spell out what the gospel is - what you’re uniting round in the mission. And Phillip Jensen memorably said to me that weekend, ‘We’re here because the first thing you do before a mission is to evangelise the Christians.’
And that’s what the apostle Paul was doing when he wrote the letter to the Romans, which we start today in a new sermon series. He was evangelising the Christians before a mission - so they could be sure of his message, and he could be sure of their backing. So it’s no accident that down the years, God has used the book of Romans to help people discover or rediscover the gospel in ways that have changed history. Eg, it was Romans that brought Martin Luther to faith - which unleashed the Reformation in the 16th century. It was reading Luther’s commentary on Romans that brought John Wesley to faith - and unleashed the re-evangelisation of Britain in the 18th century. And I’m going to pause and lead us in prayer now, because the worst possible outcome of this sermon series would be that we all know Romans a bit better. Because God didn’t inspire Romans for that. He inspired it so that if you’re not yet trusting in Christ, you’ll come to; and that if you are, you’ll be newly unleashed in evangelism. So let’s pray:
We thank you for inspiring this part of your Word to motivate us for the task of sharing the gospel with others. We confess our need for that – we confess that we lack urgency, that we lack boldness, that we lack love for our fellow-sinners who, as yet, do not know you. So we commit this sermon series to you and ask that, through the book of Romans, you would do among us something of what you did in Luther and Wesley. In Jesus’ name we ask it,
So would you please turn in the Bibles to Romans, and let me sketch a bit of background. At the time of writing this letter (probably AD 57) , Paul had never been to Rome. Someone else had taken the gospel there and a church had begun. But for various reasons, Paul now wanted to visit the church in Rome and I want you to see one of them from Romans 15. So look at Romans 15.20 where Paul writes:
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. [Skip to v23:]
23 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 see you, 24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15.20-24)
So, Paul’s planning a mission trip to take the gospel further into Europe than it’s yet been - to Spain. Rome is on the way. And he wants the church there to support him and send him on into Spain. So he writes this letter spelling out the gospel, to evangelise the Christians before the mission - so they can be sure of his message and he can be sure of their backing. Because the only people who’ll really work for the spread of the gospel are those who really understand and believe it deeply. And God’s purpose for the book of Romans is that we understand and believe the gospel deeply. Because only then will we work and pray and give and sacrifice and church-plant and, some of us, pack in our secular jobs to go into full-time ministry here or overseas - for the spread of the gospel.
There’s one more introductory thing to say. One big problem had dogged Paul’s footsteps on his missions. Again and again, he’d go to a new place and preach to non-Jewish people (‘Gentiles’, as the Bible calls them) and tell them they could be put right with God solely by trusting in Jesus and his death. But then others from a Jewish background (often professing some kind of faith in Jesus) would come in and say something like this: ‘Paul’s told you that you can be right with God solely by trusting in Jesus. But that’s not true. The Old Testament (OT) says you’ve got to be circumcised and start living under the law of Moses to be right with God. Whereas Paul’s basically thrown the OT in the bin, and is telling people they can be forgiven and then just carry on sinning.’
Now Paul wasn’t saying anything of the sort, and he didn’t want that kind of misunderstanding surfacing in Rome. So before he went, he wrote this detailed explanation of the gospel. And one thing we’ll find as we go through it is that he keeps defending his message to any potential Jewish critics, to show that, far from being disloyal to the OT, his gospel is actually the fulfilment of everything it pointed forward to.
Enough of introduction. I’ve got three headings for the rest of our time:
1. The source of the gospel
2. The content of the gospel
3. The goal of the gospel
Firstly, THE SOURCE OF THE GOSPEL (v1)
Let’s read from v1:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God [and then straight away, he writes a summary of the gospel, like a mini-creed,v2:] - 2 the gospel [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 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. (vv1-4)
So it’s as if Paul is saying right up front, ‘This is the true gospel, that I stand for – and that I think you also stand for. But we better not assume that. Let’s go over it on paper before I come.’ Which begs the question: what gives Paul the authority to say, ‘My gospel is the true gospel?’ Well, look at v1 again:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God... (v1)
‘Called to be an apostle’ is a reference to Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. In earlier years, Paul had been a totally anti-Christian Jew. He’d believed that Jesus was an impostor who had blasphemously claimed to be the Son of God; he’d believed that in getting him crucified, the Jewish leadership (of which he was part) had got rid of a dangerous heretic; he’d believed that the early church needed stamping out, and he was jointly responsible for the death and imprisonment of Christians. And on one occasion he was on his way to Damascus to hunt down some more. And in his own words, from Acts 26, this is what Paul says happened next:
12 "I was going to Damascus... 13out noon... as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?...'
15"Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?'
" 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. 16 'Now get up and stand on your feet. 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. (Acts 26.12-16)
So in that moment, Paul witnessed the resurrected Jesus. And he realised this man they’d crucified, God had raised from the dead - as if to say, ‘This really was and is my Son.’ So Paul saw the resurrected Jesus with his own eyes – which was one thing necessary to qualify you as an apostle. And he was also commissioned by the risen Jesus to be an authoritative witness – which was the other thing necessary to qualify you as an apostle. So if you’d asked Paul, ‘What gives you the authority to say your gospel is the true gospel?’ he’d have said, ‘Well, because I saw the central fact of the gospel - the risen Lord Jesus – with my own eyes; and because he gave me the authority to be one of his official witnesses. Which is why in v1 he calls it ‘the gospel of God [ie, from God].’ Ie, I didn’t make it up. I got it from God himself – straight from the horse’s mouth (if I can say that reverently) on the road to Damascus.
Two quick applications of that: One is that no-one today has that authority to define the gospel that Paul and the other apostles did. Official Roman Catholic teaching says that the Pope has that authority - to tell you what you should and shouldn’t believe. But that’s one of the places where Roman Catholic teaching is wrong. Because now the apostles are dead, authority in the church isn’t to be found in living successors to them. Authority in the church today is to be found in what the apostles wrote, in the New Testament (NT) – which, along with the OT, is God’s Word to us on paper.
The other application is this: When you’re trying to share the gospel, and someone says they don’t like it, it helps to pass the buck to God, and say something like, ‘Well, I agree that it says some things we don’t like and don’t find easy to hear. But I’m not responsible for the content. I didn’t make it up. I’m just passing on what God’s said.’ That may get you the reply, ‘How do you know it’s what God said - and wasn’t just made up by Paul and the others?’ And you need to learn how to answer that question.
That’s the source of the gospel.
Second, THE CONTENT OF THE GOSPEL (vv2-4)
Let’s look at vv2-4, the mini-creed that Paul writes next, to see what he tells us about the content of the gospel. Well, look at v2:
2 ... the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. (v2)
Now today we rightly regard the whole Bible as ‘the Holy Scriptures’ – ie, God’s Word to us on paper. But when Paul was writing this, ‘the Holy Scriptures’ meant just the OT. So the first thing Paul says about the content of the gospel is that it’s all there in the OT. Everything that Jesus eventually came to do is predicted and explained in advance in the OT. Eg, Isaiah 53 talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection 700 years in advance of it happening.
Now you might be thinking that’s not the obvious first point you’d make about the content of the gospel. But remember that problem that dogged Paul’s footsteps: Jewish people misunderstanding, and thinking he’d thrown the OT in the bin. So Paul says, ‘I haven’t done anything of the sort. My message is all about how Jesus fulfilled the OT.’ And look how he sums up the OT in v2. According to Paul, the OT is basically a promise-book – it ‘promised beforehand’ what Jesus eventually came to do. And that’s where Paul’s Jewish critics had got it totally wrong. Because they read the OT as basically a law-book. It’s as if they started reading it from Exodus 20 and put all the emphasis on law. And if you do that, the message you preach is that the fundamental response God is looking for from us is: that we obey his law. And you make it sound as if a) that’s possible for human nature - which isn’t true; and b) that it’s the way to get right with God – which isn’t true.
So in v2 Paul’s saying, No! The OT isn’t basically a law-book (although obviously it contains the law) but a promise-book. Because if you actually read it from the beginning, it says how God created things to be; it says what’s gone wrong between us and God; and then it promises the coming of Jesus to put us right. Ie, the OT never says that obeying the law can put us right with God. Instead, it promises that Jesus – and only Jesus - can.
Two quick applications of that: One is that we must avoid the trap of thinking or saying that the Old and New Testaments are contradictory. People sometimes say, ‘Well, in the OT, God gave people his law so they could get right with him by keeping it. That was plan A. But people couldn’t do it, so God came up with plan B, which was to send his Son to die so people could be forgiven.’ But that’s totally wrong. The OT promised Jesus’ death and resurrection - and that was the only plan right from the start.
The other application is this: we can’t evangelise people just from the NT. I hope that many of us have been trying to invite people to the taster session for Christianity Explored a week on Thursday. I hope someone I’ve invited will come and start looking into Mark’s Gospel, which is what Christianity Explored goes through. And it’s tempting to think, ‘Let’s just give people a bit of the NT – Mark’s Gospel - and not plunge them into ‘the deep end’ of the OT.’ But if you open up Mark’s Gospel and start reading, it goes like this:
1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God
2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet... (Mark 1.1-2)
And then he quotes the OT. ’ I.e., one verse in to this bit of the New Testament, and you get plunged back into the Old Testament. And it’s tempting to think, ‘Mark, what are you doing?! The OT will be hard for people – they might not understand it. Why don’t you just stick to writing about Jesus?’ But right up front Mark is saying, ‘The events I’m about to describe concerning Jesus happened to fulfil the promises of the OT.’ So we can’t evangelise people just from the NT. Again and again, people’s questions – like where did evil come from? - will need us to go back to the OT. And we shouldn’t worry about that. It’s not ‘the deep end’. And it’s all of a piece with the NT - it’s all God’s Word to us on paper.
Read on in Romans 1, to v3. What else do we learn about the content of the gospel? Well, v3, it’s:
3 regarding [i.e., about] his Son [God’s Son], who as to his human nature was a descendant of David... (v3)
So the gospel is the news of what happened 2,000 years ago when the Son of God became a human being in the person of Jesus. So talking with people about the church or about Christian morality is not evangelism. Evangelism is talking about Jesus. And Paul says: looked at just from the human nature point of view, Jesus was a man born into the line of the OT King David. And that’s massively significant. Because David was promised that one day, someone from his own line would rule as God’s King forever (2 Samuel 7.11-16). It was a promise far too big for a merely human king to fulfil - since merely human kings don’t live forever. Which is why Paul writes what he does about this particular descendent of David, in v4:
4 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. (v4)
Now if you look down to footnote ‘b’ there’s a better translation of that bit. It says Jesus was ‘appointed to be the Son of God with power’ by his resurrection from the dead. So Paul’s saying: the gospel is... that God’s Son was born as a man, to become God’s King forever; that he then lived, died and was raised from the dead to sit on the throne of this universe at his Father’s side. And that’s what, ‘he was appointed to be the Son of God with power’ means. He’d always been the Son of God. But through his death and resurrection, he’s now been given all the powers of being King and Judge and Saviour. So the resurrection says that Jesus is the rightful King of everyone. The resurrection says that everyone’s going to meet him one day as Judge – because he’s alive and none of us can avoid that date in our diary on the day of judgement. And the resurrection says that he can save us from judgement because he not only went under the judgement we deserve when he died on the cross, but he came out from under it in the resurrection to show that he’d paid the full price of our forgiveness – to show that the cross ‘worked’. And the one word that sums up all that power - over everyone and everything - is the last word of v4: Lord. And the shortest summary of the gospel is just three words long. Jesus is Lord.
So that’s the content of the gospel. And the point is: it’s easily lost. We easily talk about other things – like church or morality - and think we’re sharing the gospel when we’re not. We easily talk about some bits of the gospel (like forgiveness) and not others (like judgement); but that’s not the gospel; that’s the gospel minus. And of every evangelistic talk or book or course – whether it’s Christianity Explored or Alpha or the latest offering from Saddleback church or whatever it is - we need to ask, ‘Is this really the gospel? What would the apostle Paul think of this?’ Be discerning, because not everything that calls itself the gospel really is.
Third, THE GOAL OF THE GOSPEL (v5)
And the goal of the gospel is that people put their faith in Jesus. So lastly, Paul spells out the response to the gospel that God is looking for in us. V5. Paul writes:
5 Through him [i.e., the risen Lord Jesus] and for his name's sake, we [i.e., Paul and his fellow-apostles] received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles [i.e., all nations, all people] to the obedience that comes from faith. (v5)
In the original, that last bit literally says ‘the obedience of faith.’ Now that could mean, ‘the obedience that comes from faith’ - as the NIV translation interprets it. Ie, you put your faith in Jesus and his death, you’re forgiven through that - which motivates you to obey him, to try to please him in response. Now that’s a truth about Christian experience and Paul talks about the way that happens later in Romans – in chapter 6.
But I don’t think that’s what ‘the obedience of faith’ means in Romans 1.5. It’s like the phrase ‘the joy of parenthood’. That means that parenthood is a joy. And in this verse, I think ‘the obedience of faith’ means that faith is obedience – it’s obedience to the gospel. And Paul uses that phrase because, remember, he has in mind that problem of Jewish misunderstanding. And most Jews in his day read the Bible as a law-book. And if you’d asked them, ‘What fundamental response is God looking for from us? Where does spiritual life begin?’, they’d have said, ‘Obedience to his law.’
And Paul’s saying: wrong. The fundamental response God is looking for from us is not obedience to his law, but obedience to his gospel. That’s how spiritual life begins and what spiritual life is base on from then on. Because relationship with God is not based on the obedience of trying to keep God’s law. It’s based on obedience to the gospel. And what does the gospel tell us – or command us – to do? To put our faith in Jesus and his death for the forgiveness of our sins – and when we do so, that’s ‘the obedience of faith’. And, yes, that does lead to the obedience of trying to please God in response to being forgiven and accepted – but that’s not what Paul’s talking about here in Romans 1. He moves onto the issue of obedient living in Romans 6 (which begins, ‘What, shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!’) But in Romans 1-5, he’s solely on about faith and the truth that faith in Jesus’ death alone is how we’re forgiven and accepted. What he’s saying here is this: never forget that relationship with God is based 100% on what Jesus did for you in his death and resurrection, and 0% on what you do for Jesus is trying to please him in response. So that the fundamental response God is looking for from you is faith in Jesus and his death. And if you’re a believer lacking joy in your salvation, lacking confidence in God’s acceptance of you, one likely reason why is that you’ve forgotten that your relationship with God depends 100% on Jesus and what he did for you on the cross, and 0% on what you do for him in response.
Two last things about the goal of the gospel. Notice in v5 that the goal is to call all people to the obedience of faith. My dear Mum said to me a while back, ‘Your church doesn’t try to evangelise Muslims, does it?’ - as if that would be terribly wrong or offensive, since they already have a religion of their own. And of course it is offensive, isn’t it? In fact, it’s offensive to evangelise anyone - in the sense that if I do, by implication I’m saying, ‘What you currently believe is false; what you’re currently trusting in life is wrong.’ And Islam is false. Just like Buddhism is false and Hinduism is false and all the human religions of the world are false – including secular humanism and atheism. Because the fact is: Jesus did rise from the dead to demonstrate that he is Lord and God of this universe. And everyone, everywhere, whatever their current beliefs needs to hear that. And if someone says, ‘But isn’t that just arrogant, imposing your beliefs on everyone else?’ the answer is this. For one thing, they’re not just my subjective beliefs – like believing there are fairies at the bottom of the garden (when there’s absolutely no objective evidence that there are). There is solid, objective evidence that Jesus lived, died and rose again, making this true for all people. The other thing is that I’m not trying to ‘impose’ these beliefs. That’s the point of that word ‘call’ in v5. We believe God calls people to respond to him willingly through the gospel. So we simply present the gospel and give people unpressurised space to respond.
And, finally, the ultimate goal of the gospel is, middle of v5, ‘for his name’s sake’ – ie, for the honour of the Lord Jesus. There are various motivations for sharing the gospel. A big one is to think of people’s need for Christ – to think of how lost they are in life without him, not knowing what it’s really all about; and worst of all, to think of how lost they will be in eternity without him. But the biggest motivation for sharing the gospel is the honour of the Lord Jesus. Because worse still than the lostness of our fellow-sinners is the fact that every day they are refusing to recognise Jesus as Lord. Everyday, the lives of our friends and neighbours and work colleagues and fellow-students are a 24-hour offence to the Lord Jesus. Not because they’re as bad as they possibly could be (any more than I was, before I came to Christ) – many of them are delightfully nice people. But because they pay no conscious attention to the Lord Jesus at all.
And if the gospel is simply that Jesus is Lord, then the biggest motivation to share the gospel is to see him recognised as Lord, as he should be, by everyone.
Dust to Destiny: Reading Romans Today, David Seccombe, Aquila Press
This will be available at the back of church for a specially reduced price and would be an ideal book to read alongside this sermon series. It’s straightforward, clear and applied; and for each of the sermon series passages, there’s a chapter between 5 and 10 pages long – so it’s manageable!