Reading for Tuesday, Jan. 31: Romans 1
Thanks to everyone for a great study of John. Starting today, we turn to one of the church’s most important voices — Paul — and his letter to the Romans.
There are plenty of background issues that are important to a detailed study of Romans. While we don’t have room to discuss all of them here, one particularly important issue seems to be the division between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church at Rome. This note from the ESV Study Bible succinctly summarizes this background issue: “Paul’s selection of themes (gospel and law; the significance of Abraham; the future of Israel) suggests significant tensions between the Jews and Gentiles in Rome. Paul wrote Romans so that they would be united in the gospel he preached, and so that they would comprehend how the gospel spoke to the issues that divided them.” As we’ll see toward the end of Romans, Paul knows a united Roman church will be a powerful springboard for sharing the Gospel in Spain and beyond.
Finally, the most likely date for the writing of Romans is in the late 50s, probably around AD 57.
Paul is fond of great and grand introductions to his writings and his letter to the Romans is no different. Only Paul could get caught up in such sweeping doxology while simply trying to say hello!
One phrase in his introduction catches my eye: “set apart for the gospel”. I think that phrase holds the key to Paul’s self-understanding. If you asked Paul about his purpose, his life’s mission, I think he’d say the Lord had set him apart for the gospel. Paul seems to have this laser-like focus on his calling. The only thing that matters for Paul is the gospel, Jesus Christ crucified. If you listen to Paul’s sermons that Luke records over in Acts, Paul only preaches Jesus! Jesus is the central thesis of Paul’s life and ministry. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus forever altered his life, putting him on an entirely different path, giving him a radically different purpose to pursue. And the glory of it all is that Jesus continues this same work, intersecting our lives and transforming them, calling us the same purposeful pursuit, gracing us with His all-sufficient presence to accomplish the tasks at hand. We, too, brothers and sisters, have been set apart for God’s gospel!
I find it interesting that Paul wants to preach the gospel to these Christians in Rome (1:15). We might ask ourselves, “But these people are already Christians, Paul. Why are you so eager to preach the gospel to them?” If we define gospel purely in terms of atonement and response — Jesus died on the cross for your sins; you need to repent of your sins, accept Him as Savior, etc. — then we might question why Paul would feel this pressing need to share the gospel with the Roman church. But I believe there’s an additional element to the Good News, one that ties in with our comments about being set apart for the gospel. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, accepting the gracious gift of God in Christ is a fully liberating experience. By acknowledging our sinfulness and receiving the forgiveness that can only be found in Christ, we also receive the freedom to truly LIVE for Christ. Our very lives become infused with fresh wind from on high, propelling us into a new life (the abundant life, to use John’s terminology). This comprises the practical outworking of all the atonement theology: it’s all focused on setting humanity free from the bondage of sin to live on purpose as God’s image-bearing creation. I think this is what Paul means when he says, “For me to live is Christ.” Paul has been freed from the mistakes of the past in order to more fully live toward Christ. This is gospel, too. And I think this, more than anything, is what Paul longs to share with a divisive church family in Rome.
The final half of Romans 1 is a set-up for what comes in Romans 2. Paul talks about “them” — the godless and wicked, depraved in both mind and body — in order to heighten the point he’s going to make about “us” in ch2. But we can draw several important themes out of these final verses: God’s self-revelation, even in creation (v20); a definition of sin as exchanging God’s glory for something false (v23); God’s acquiescence to human free will (v24, 26, 28). But more than anything else, I think Romans 1 affirms that which plagues us all: sin. Paul will have more to say about this in the next few chapters. Thankfully, sin never has the final word for those who are in Christ Jesus.