Like any letter, this one had to eventually come to a close. Paul had to wrap up what he was saying and draw his thoughts to a single conclusion. And for Paul, that was a warning against divisions and obstacles. His greatest fear was the influence that false teachers might have on the believers in Rome, especially during the time it took him to get there. He knew from experience that there would be those who attempted to sway the church away from the truth with offers of a variant form of the gospel. They would use smooth-sounding words and be motivated by purely selfish reasons. And Paul pulls no punches, calling these individuals evil and describing them as tools of Satan. They were to be considered dangerous and deadly, wicked men who preyed on the naïve and the immature. Their words were to be rejected and their fellowship denied. For the sake of the well-being of the church and the further spread of the gospel.
Unity and diversity. These are two of the characteristics that mark the church, the body of Jesus Christ. And Paul is going to stress both qualities as he wraps up his letter to the Romans. In a world where social standing and ethnic elitism ran rampant, the church provided a refreshing glimpse into the way God intended His people to live. As Paul clearly stated in his letter to the Galatians: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This does not mean we lose our ethnicity or gender, give up our social standing or cease to be who we are. It simply indicates that our diversity takes a back seat to our unity in Christ. We all share one thing in common: Our faith in Christ and union with Him in His death, burial and resurrection.
Paul was a non-stop whirlwind of activity when it came to the gospel. He rarely took a break from his missionary travels and, even when he stopped in any city or town for very long, he was busy spreading the good news about Jesus Christ to anybody and everybody who would listen. Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor, slave, free, male, female. Paul was an equal-opportunity evangelist. There was no one too lost, too sinful, too uneducated or too far gone that didn’t hear the message of salvation and feel the compassion of Paul. But Paul required support, especially the prayers of the saints. He knew his time was limited and the opposition to what he was doing was great. So he begged his readers to pray for him. He was doing spiritual work and it required spiritual backing. Paul most likely knew the words of James well: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
Sometimes it can feel as if living the Christian life is impossible. The standards feel too lofty, the expectations, too great. Many of us feel pressure to meet the expectations of those around us – well-meaning fellow believers, who give us a list of rules to keep or criteria to meet. We feel the need to compare, using everything from the length of our quiet times and the number of verses we have memorized, to the depth of our Bible knowledge and the regularity of our church attendance. But Paul would have us understand that our faith is not to be measured by our accomplishments as much as by our dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is He who produces righteousness within us. It is He who gives us the capacity to live holy lives. Our growth in Christ-likeness is not to be accomplished in our own strength, any more than our salvation was accomplished by our own merit. We have what it takes to live holy lives, and He’s called the Holy Spirit.
Most of us as Americans don’t like the idea of committees. We are inherently individualists who have each inherited a built-in independent streak. Few of us like to be told what to do and would prefer to do things our way, on our own timeline and all by ourselves. We are a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps kind of people. So, when we read the letters of Paul, we tend to read them with a what’s-in-it-for-me kind of attitude. We see all those personal pronouns in his letters and assume he is talking to us – as individuals. But as we look at chapter 15 of Romans, we are going to see that Paul put a high priority on the body of Christ. The whole metaphor of the body, of which Paul was quite fond, conjures up images of codependency and mutual cooperation. The body is a single unit in which all the parts work together for the common good. The same thing is true of the body of Christ. We are not in this alone.
Disunity and dissension are dangerous things when it comes to the local body of Christ. And they can show up as a result of some of the silliest and pettiest of issues. In chapter 14 of Romans. Paul will address a seemingly ridiculous situation regarding food that was threatening the unity of that local fellowship. When all was said and done, the problem had little to do with food and a lot to do with rights, pride, and a sense of superiority infecting the body of Christ in Rome. That’s why Paul chose to deal with it so strongly. He knew the danger of disunity and the need for a spirit of humility and selflessness within the local body. None of us is greater than anyone else. Our rights do not take precedence over the spiritual well-being of another. We are to put the needs of others ahead of our own. We are to build up, not tear down. We are to be encouragers, not stumbling blocks. All for the good of the body and the glory of God.
Opinions. Everybody has them. And most of us like to share them. But at times, we turn our opinions into what amount to be unwritten laws or codes of conduct, all based on little more than our own understanding of how things should be. We often assume that our opinions carry the weight of Scripture, but based on little evidence. And then we feel obligated to force our point of views on all those around us, policing their actions and judging their failure to live up to our standards. But Paul would have us stop judging one another. He is not saying that we should lack conviction or the courage to speak out against sin. As he tells us in verse 1 of Romans chapter 14, we are “not to quarrel over opinions.” We are not to force our personal views on one another. We are not to divide the body of Christ over petty, personal opinions that inflate our egos and feed our pride.
We all know what the Bible has to say about love. But knowing what it says and actually doing it are two completely different matters. Loving others is difficult. Loving our enemies is impossible. Yet God clearly commands us to do both. As Paul continues to address the believer’s relationship with the world and all those who live in it, he takes us to all-too-familiar topic of love. In the second half of chapter 13, he will encourage us to live distinctively different lives by loving in a distinctively different manner. We are to love as Christ loved. We are to love others because we have been loved by God. And this kind of love is not optional. In fact, Paul will tell us that the kind of love to which we have been called fulfills all the requirements of the law. Loving is the consummate expression of our obedience to all of God’s commands. Our love is to be visible, tangible, practical and ultimately, sacrificial.
It was Francis Schaefer who wrote the book entitled, How Should We Then Live? It was a call to believers to live distinctively different lives in the midst of the morally declining culture of the 20th Century. Paul issues a similar call to the believers living in Rome, the decadent and oppressive government that overshadowed all of life. And his words carry powerful weight for us today as we struggle to live out our faith in an ever-increasingly hostile atmosphere marked by secularism and moral relativism. Paul’s words will sound just as shocking today as they did the day he wrote them. We will instinctively resist his counsel just as his original audience did. We’ll want to insist that he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know how bad things have gotten. But Paul is speaking for God. And God has placed us on this earth as agents of change and ministers of reconciliation.
As Christians, we can sometimes feel that we are surrounded by evil. The world in which we live can be a harsh place at times, and it appears that our faith in Christ is resulting in our ever-increasing polarization from the rest of the humanity. And yet, Paul is calling us to live out our faith in such a way that the truth of the gospel stands in stark contrast to the wickedness that surrounds us. When hated, we are to love. When cursed, we are to bless. We are called to live in harmony and humility – with all men. And rather than responding in kind to the evil we may face in this life, we are to reflect the grace, mercy and love of Christ and rely upon our hope in the promises of God. It won’t be easy, but it will get the attention of the world. We are called to live radically different lives, and the more we become like Christ, the more we will stand in stark contrast to the world and as living evidence of the power of God.
What difference should the gospel make in our lives? In what ways should the good news regarding Jesus Christ transform the way we live? In chapter 12, Paul will begin putting shoe leather to the doctrinal insights he has provided. He will now attempt to make the theological, practical, showing us how new life in Christ should show up in everyday life in real, tangible ways. But for Paul, it all starts with sacrifice. It begins with a dying to self in order that we might live for Christ. It starts with a realization that we are not our own, and that we belong to God. As His children, we have been called to live distinctively different lives, set apart from the world around us, and empowered by the Holy Spirit within us. Our salvation is to result in our sanctification, our ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. But it requires a daily surrender to God’s will instead of our own.
For Paul, God was both unfathomable and amazingly approachable. He was majestic, holy, and worthy of honor, praise and glory. Yet, He could be incredibly loving, gracious, kind and understanding. Paul never minimized the greatness of God, but He took great comfort in the fact that it was God’s unchanging nature as a holy and righteous God that made Him consistently reliable, even when His ways were not fully understandable. There was much about God’s relationship with Israel that Paul didn’t understand. While he could not explain the ways of God, he didn’t believe that gave him the right to question the integrity of God. He was fully confident that God knew what He was doing and that His plans for Israel would be completely and faithfully fulfilled. God was and is reliable. His word stands. His will is always accomplished.
It would have been easy for the Gentile recipients of Paul’s letter to have concluded that the Jews had blown it. They had rejected Jesus as their Messiah and, therefore, God had chosen to take His message of salvation to non-Jews. But Paul, a Jew himself, wouldn’t allow them to draw this conclusion. In response to whether God had rejected His people, Paul responded, “By no means!” They may have rejected Him, but He had not rejected them. He had a plan for the people of Israel and had made binding promises regarding their future that He was going to keep. Their rejection of His Son had not caught God off guard. He hadn’t been forced to knee-jerk react and come up with a plan B. In fact, everything was going exactly as He had pre-ordained it to happen. No surprises. No setbacks. No cause for concern. Because God had always planned for all the nations to be blessed, including Israel, and so they were.
As Paul closes out chapter 10, he stresses God’s unique relationship to the people of Israel. While they were God’s chosen people, and Jesus had come to them as their Messiah, the vast majority of them had refused to accept Him as such. The apostle John, in his gospel, described just what had happened. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12 NLT). Paul, a Jew himself, had watched as his own people continued to reject Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, while the Gentiles gladly accepted His offer of salvation through grace alone, by faith alone in Christ alone. The Jews had heard, and so, they were without excuse. The light of God had shown among them, but they had chosen to remain in darkness. God had called, but they had refused to listen.
Paul had an obsession with the gospel. It had radically redeemed and changed him. And he was eternally grateful. So much so, that he couldn’t stop talking about it. Everywhere he went, the good news of Jesus Christ was just about all Paul could talk about – to anybody who would listen. It was Paul’s gratitude for what Christ had done for him that fueled his evangelistic zeal. Of course, he had been commissioned by Jesus Himself, but Paul didn’t view his commission as a job, but as a privilege. It was his joy to share the grace that had been shown to him. It was his honor to tell others of the life-changing message of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. And as we open up chapter ten of Romans, we are going to see Paul’s passion for the gospel and his compassion for the lost coming together in a powerful display of evangelistic zeal. Paul was willing to risk all so that some might come to know Jesus as their Savior.
It is a dangerous thing to shake your fist in the face of a holy God and question His integrity or cast doubt regarding His justice. And yet, so often, that is exactly what we do. Our problem is one of perspective, as Paul will point out. We have a limited view of what God is doing, and a less-than-complete understanding of His will or His ways. We have a tendency to look at events from our earth-based vantage point and either question God’s methods or raise doubts as to His presence altogether. The Jews of Paul’s day couldn’t understand why God would offer His grace and mercy to the Gentiles. In their minds, that was unfair. Rich Gentiles who came to faith in Christ struggled with the idea of poor believers being their equals. The ways of God are sometimes difficult to comprehend. He can be mysterious and unconventional, but He is also gracious and merciful. All because He chooses to be. Not because we deserve Him to be.
What was Paul, a good Jew, supposed to do with all the promises God had made to the people of Israel? Was the fact he had been commissioned to take the gospel to the Gentiles a sign that God was done with the Jews? Were they no longer His chosen people? Chapter nine of Romans opens up an important section of the letter that will deal with God’s seeming rejection of the Jews and His inclusion of the Gentiles. The Jews in Paul’s audience, who had placed their faith in Christ, were struggling over what appeared to be a falling from grace on the part of the Israelites. But Paul is going to emphasize God’s faithfulness to His chosen people and affirm that God’s word, His promises, have not failed regarding the descendants of Israel. God was going to choose from among them just as He had among the Gentiles. His blessings would fall on Jew and Gentile alike. Based on His grace, not merit.
In the final verses of chapter eight, Paul stresses the irrepressible, unavoidable and unbelievable love of God for His children. This love, ultimately expressed in the selfless sacrifice of His own Son as payment for our sins, is like nothing we have ever seen before. It’s not based on our performance, so it’s completely undeserved and impossible to un-earn. In other words, there’s nothing we can ever do that will make God stop loving us. And there is nothing anyone else can do to separate us from God’s love. God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. And His love will not be completely fulfilled until He sends His Son back to get us. And between those two events in our life, He continues to pour out His love on us as He patiently, graciously and mercifully transforms us into the likeness of His Son. His love for us came at a great cost, and will last forever.
God saved us and one day He is going to glorify us. But what are we supposed to do in the meantime? That’s the topic of the next section of Romans chapter eight. In verses 18-30 Paul will deal with our future glory and our present suffering. He’ll juxtapose our eternal life to come with the life we are called to live in the meantime. During this phase of our journey, we will experience His sanctifying work in our lives, but it will take place along with the ever-present reality of sin and suffering. But once again, Paul will remind us that we have been given the Spirit of God to help us in our weaknesses and to intercede on our behalf with “groanings too deep for words.” And finally, Paul will leave us with those comforting, yet sometimes difficult to believe words, “all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.”
In the first 17 verses of Romans chapter eight, Paul provides us with important insight into how we are to live for Christ now that we have been set free from the law. He doesn’t tell us to avoid the law or to view it as unnecessary or no longer valid. No, he tells us to walk according to the Spirit. We are to live our lives according to a new power. The Holy Spirit was God’s gift to the church, providing believers with the power they need to live the life to which He has called them. No longer are we staring at a long list of holy requirements, equipped with nothing more than our sinful flesh to help us live obediently. That method has been proven ineffective in producing holy people. But now, we have the Spirit of God providing for us the power of God and making it possible for us to live as the people of God. It is the very presence of the Spirit of God within us that proves to us that we are sons and daughters of God, and heirs to His kingdom.
The second half of Romans chapter seven contains an up close and personal glimpse into Paul’s own battle with sin. Here was a man who had had a face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Christ, and who had spent years sharing the goods new of faith in Christ with countless individuals all across the known world of that day. And yet, he struggled with sin. He knew what it was like to desire to do what was right and good, but to find himself unable to pull it off. He had discovered the reality of the daily battle we all face as believers: The internal war between our old sin nature and the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. When God saved us, He didn’t eradicate our sin nature. It remains alive and well, and stands diametrically opposed to the plans the Holy Spirit has for us. But God didn’t just give us an alternative to sin, He gave us a means by which we can have victory over it. All through the power of the Spirit.
As we open up chapter seven of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we will see him returning to his discussion of man’s new relationship with the law as a result of Christ’s death on the cross. In no way is Paul attempting to diminish the value of the law. In fact, he will defend it with his life. But he is trying to get believers to understand that they have been set from the law in terms of any need they may feel to keep it in order to made right with God. The law is holy, but it cannot transfer that holiness to anyone. Only Jesus can make the unholy, holy. Only He can replace our unrighteousness with His own righteousness. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can do good deeds, not in our power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are free to be fruitful. We are free to keep the righteous requirements of the law, not as a form of merit, but as an expression of our newfound righteousness provided for us by Christ.
In chapter six of his letter to the Romans, Paul continues to unpack the good news regarding faith in Christ and its provision of a right relationship with God. And one of the most profound aspects of our salvation, made possible by God’s gracious gift of His Son, is the freedom we enjoy. We have been set free from slavery to sin and are now free to pursue a life of holiness. But not based on our human efforts or our ability to keep a set of rules. Our freedom to say no to sin and yes to holiness has been made possible by Christ’s death and the Spirit’s presence in our lives. Holiness, Paul will remind us, is not an issue of SELF-control, but of the Spirit’s control over us. It is based on a willing submission to God’s power made available to us through His indwelling Spirit. We can experience the transformation God has in store for us as we transfer the control of our lives to the Spirit of God He has made available to us.
As we move into the first six verses of Romans chapter six, we see Paul beginning to stress our new life in Christ as believers. The good news of Jesus Christ is not just future-focused, promising the reality of eternal life and a glorified, sinless state some time out there in the distance. He is reminding us that we can and should experience new life here and now – even in this present age with all its sin, struggles and strife. One of the primary topics of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the ongoing, progressive sanctification of the believer. We are being transformed into the image of Christ, day after day, year after year. It is an ongoing reality for all those who have placed their faith in Christ and within whom God has placed His Spirit. And our transformation, like our salvation, is not up to us – it is the work of God. Which is what makes it not only possible, but unavoidable.
What is the Christian’s relationship with the law? On the one hand, Paul will say that the law is holy, just and good. On the other hand, he’ll say that we are no longer under the law, but instead, under grace. In chapter seven he’ll tell us that we have died to the law, so therefore, we are released from it. But Paul’s issue with the law has nothing to do with its authority, just its efficacy. In other words, the law, while holy, was not designed to save. In fact, it can’t save. It can instruct. It can convict. It can condemn. But it will never make anyone right with God. Paul will make it quite clear that the law was given to reveal our sinfulness, not get rid of it. And what makes the law holy is that it is a tangible expression of God’s righteous requirements for mankind. And while any attempt to obey the law and gain favor with God will prove futile, the believer is able to obey out of love, not obligation, and in the power of the Spirit, not the flesh.