To Rome With Love
January 5, 1992
The year was 1911, and a young man from Sydney, Australia, arrived in the United States. He had crossed the ocean to study at a fledgling school called Moody Bible Institute. While still a student, he was called as the first pastor of a brand-new congregation in suburban Oak Park. He stayed for two years, then made his way to Texas where he pastored for a few more years, then on to Iowa, Minnesota and California, finally assuming the pastorate of the prestigious Church of the Open Door in downtown Los Angeles. It was there that the young man from Australia, now in his mature years, did his greatest work, saving that massive edifice built by R. A. Torrey from bankruptcy in the midst of the Great Depression. While he was in Los Angeles, he began a radio ministry that eventually stretched across the country, reaching as far as Charlotte, North Carolina, where a teenager named Billy Graham used to tune in to his broadcasts.
In the mid-1930’s, in the heart of the Depression, he preached a series of sermons from the book of Romans, a series that became so famous they were eventually put in book form. These are the words of Louis Talbot, first pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, from the introduction to his “Addresses on Romans.”
No portion of the sacred writings is more appropriate for our times than Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Through its prayerful study, sinners will be justified by faith, and Christians will be established in the fundamental doctrine of the grace of God.
I submit that those words are more true today than they were when Louis Talbot wrote them 56 years ago. No portion of God’s word is more appropriate for these times. What times? Times of uncertainty and unparalleled moral confusion. Times of recession and financial unrest. Times of international upheaval and spiritual hunger.
Even Atheists Pray
Did you see the cover of the current issue of Newsweek magazine (January 6, 1992)? In huge letters the title said, “Talking to God,” and underneath in smaller letters, “An Intimate Look at the Way We Pray.” Here’s an amazing fact from that article. Although only 40% of all Americans will be in church or synagogue on any given week, well over 80% of all Americans pray each week. In fact, surveys reveal that 20% of those who call themselves atheists or agnostics pray every day.
Why is that?
In an age of relativism, God remains for many the one true absolute. In an era of transience and divorce, God can be the only place to turn for unconditional love. (p. 39)
As the article makes clear, there is a growing spiritual hunger in America today, a hunger that won’t be satisfied by bigger salaries, nicer cars, or a new wife or husband. Americans are looking for God, but they don’t know where to find him.
And that’s where the book of Romans comes in. It tells us who God is and how you can find him. It describes in unsparing terms the moral dilemma of mankind and how God moved to meet that need in Jesus Christ. It lays out the good news that God loves sinners so much that he sent his only Son to die for them. And it spells out the radical difference Jesus Christ can make in your daily life.
Louis Talbot was right. No book is more appropriate for our times than the book of Romans. The first pastor of this church said it. The 12th pastor stands up 56 years later and says Amen.
The Year of the Word
Since this is the first Sunday of a new year, we are making several new beginnings. For one thing, 1992 is the Year of the Word at Calvary. One of our major goals this year is to grow deeper in our knowledge of God’s Word. Our theme verse for the year is Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law.” That’s my prayer for our church this year, that God might indeed open our eyes to see the wonderful truths God has in his Word. I challenge you to make Psalm 119:18 your personal prayer. In fact, I challenge you to make it a part of your life by praying it every single day. If you pray for open eyes, you can be sure that God will answer your prayer.
I should mention parenthetically that this morning I’m preaching from the One-Year Bible. Over 150 of us have taken the challenge to read through the Bible this year. If you started on January 1, you have already read through Genesis 1-12, Matthew 1-5, Psalms 1-5, and most of Proverbs 1. Somebody gave me a little note this week that said if you read through the Bible at pulpit speed (that is, slowly and out loud) for only 11 minutes a day, you can read through the whole thing in one year. Eleven minutes a day isn’t much. Most of us waste that much time before lunch every day.
The Daily Bread of the Soul
With that as background, let’s jump into our study of the book of Romans. I begin with the simple observation that it is the most important letter ever written. Keep in mind that Romans was originally a personal letter from the Apostle Paul in the year A.D. 57 to the Christians in Rome. No one has ever written a more important letter at any time or in any place. No letter has ever influenced more people than this one.
Martin Luther began the preface to his commentary on Romans this way:
This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.
C.D. Dodd added that Romans is “the first great work of Christian theology.” I would go even farther. It’s not only the first, but also the greatest work of Christian theology. No one in 2,000 years has written anything to match it.
Let me give you three simple statements that sum up the importance of this book:
It is the clearest statement of the gospel in the New Testament. Nowhere is God’s plan of salvation made so plain as in Romans. In this letter—as in no other—Paul lays out God’s method of saving sinners—through justification by faith wholly apart from the works of the law.
It offers the most penetrating analysis of the moral condition of mankind. Why is the human race in such a mess? Why do men and women turn away from the truth? Why is there no peace on earth? What about those who have never heard the gospel? What happens to them? In the next few weeks we’ll discover God’s answers to these crucial questions.
It is the greatest statement of Christian theology ever written. As one writer put it, “When we think of Romans, we think of doctrine.” He’s right. And nowhere are the great doctrines of salvation made so clear as they are in this book.
Saved by Romans
I do not exaggerate when I say that God has used this book to cause the conversion of some of the most significant figures in church history. Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the first 1000 years of Chris-tian history, was converted while reading the 13th chapter of Romans. Martin Luther recovered the doctrine of justification by faith from reading Romans 1:17, and went on to lead the Protestant Reformation. While listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to Romans, a discouraged missionary named John Wesley found his heart “strangely warmed” and then and there trusted Christ and Christ alone for salvation. He went on to lead the great evangelical revival of the 18th century. A tinker named John Bunyan was so inspired by reading Romans as he sat in the Bedford jail that he wrote the immortal Pilgrim’s Progress.
Examples could be multiplied of the power of this remarkable book. The theologian Godet said in his commentary that every major revival in church history has been preceded by the preaching of Romans. Truly this is the greatest of Paul’s letters, the greatest book of Christian theology, and the most influential letter ever written on the face of the earth.
Excitement and Caution
For all those reasons I approach this particular preaching assignment with excitement mixed with caution. Excitement because I believe God wants to do great things in our midst while we are studying this important book. But also caution because this is a truly great book, the greatest in all the New Testament.
Perhaps I can explain my feelings this way. Last May while I was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) with John and Helen Sergey we visited the Hermitage, which once was the winter palace of Peter the Great and now houses one of the greatest museums in all the world. In one room we came to a large collection of paintings by Rem-brandt. There were no ropes or barriers around the paintings so you could get as close as you liked. As I stood in front of Rembrandt’s famous painting of the disciples taking Christ down from the cross, I was transfixed. Although Rembrandt painted his picture hundreds of years ago, the power is still there, so overwhelming in fact that as you stand in front of it you unconsciously lower your voice out of respect for the artist and his great gift.
I feel something like that as we begin these studies together. Romans is not to be taken lightly. Perhaps like Moses before the burning bush, we should all take off our shoes for when we study this great book we are standing on holy ground.
“Go to Romans”
Some of you may wonder why we are studying this book right now. The answer is simple. Many months ago as I began to consider this new year God laid on my heart that we as a congregation need to get back into the Word in a new and deeper way. We’ve grown so much and added so many new people in the last few years that we haven’t had time to ground everyone in the basic teachings of the Bible. We need deeper roots if we’re going to grow bigger. If you try to grow big without also growing deep, you’ll be like the tree that was blown away in the storm. It looked good in the sunshine, but it wouldn’t last when the rains came.
As I began thinking about what to do, I was pulled by the Holy Spirit toward Romans. To be truthful, I resisted at first because Romans is a long book and a deep book. In fact, I planned to preach on James instead, but the Holy Spirit said, “No, go to Romans.”
And so I purpose to preach through Romans verse-by-verse. I’m going to do it in four sections: In 1992, chapters 1-4, “God’s Good News.” Perhaps next year we will go on to chapters 5-8, “New Life in Christ.” Still later we will consider chapters 9-11, “Understanding God’s Plan.” And eventually we will come to chapters 12-16, “The Transformed Life.”
For this year we are tackling chapters 1-4. I’ll be preaching 16 messages around the general theme “God’s Good News.” Over the years I expect to preach 60-75 messages from this book. But not all at once!
A Crucial Presupposition
One other note. Enclosed in your worship folder today is a printed sermon outline. Those are provided to enhance your learning. These are teaching messages. As we go through Romans together, I’ll be following the outline point by point. Each week I will assume that you will take the notes out of the worship folder and follow along with me as I preach through Romans.
My goal, however, is not merely to increase your knowledge. Knowledge is important, but it is never the final purpose of Bible study. My ultimate goal is that your life might be changed as a result of studying God’s Word. The Puritans talked about “practical divinity” and “the doctrine of living to God.” That’s what we want as we study this great book.
Remember, this is God’s Word to you. It is not an abstract treatise or a dull, dry doctrinal dissertation. Every word is for you! Every word applies to you! This is God’s Word for Oak Park in 1992. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, this is “true truth.” Romans is not just religious truth. Romans is all about the world the way it really is.
The Key Word
As we turn to the book of Romans, we begin by searching for the key word that gives us the theme of the book. We don’t have to look far to find it. The key word is found in verse 1. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” Notice the phrase— “the gospel of God.” Now look in verse 2— “The gospel which he promised beforehand.” Drop down to verse 9— “the gospel of his Son.” Look at verse 15 — “I am eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.” Finally, he comes to his theme in verse 16 — “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Verse 17 adds an explanation— “For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed.”
What is the theme of the book? The gospel.
What is Paul writing about? The gospel.
What is the key word of Romans? The gospel.
Let’s lay it out in four simple statements:
Romans is all about the gospel. We find that in the very first verse.
The gospel is wrapped up in the historical truth of the person of Jesus Christ. Paul explains that in verses 2-4.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news because it has life-changing power. That statement comes from verse 16.
The gospel saves those who believe it because it reveals the righteousness of God. That comes from verse 17.
Romans is all about the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ and the difference he can make when he comes into your life. In fact, the English word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, which means good tidings, or as we would say, good news.
God’s Good News
Let’s go one more step and take the key word and make it into an outline of the whole book. Romans is about the gospel, God’s Good News. As you read this book, you discover that it falls into three distinct parts—chapters 1-8 form the first part, chapters 9-11 form the second part, chapters 12-16 form the third part.
Here’s a simple outline of the book:
The gospel is God’s good news for sinners. That’s chapters 1-8, where Paul explains how the gospel of Jesus Christ saves sinners, justifies them in the sight of God, unites them with Jesus Christ, and equips them through the Holy Spirit to live victoriously in this world. The key word for this section is Doctrinal.
The gospel is God’s good news for Israel. That’s chapters 9-11, where Paul takes up the thorny question of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. Does that mean that Israel has been cast off forever? As Paul would say, God forbid! In these chapters he explains Israel’s unbelief in light of the doctrine of election and predestination, and he shows how Israel as a nation will be brought back into God’s plan in the end times. The key word for this section is National.
The gospel is God’s good news for your life. That covers chapters 12-16, where Paul lays out the implications of the gospel for believers. He discusses the transformation of the mind, spiritual gifts, love among the brethren, and the vexing problem of weaker and stronger Christians in the body of Christ. The key word for this section is Practical.
A Very Long Sentence
As we turn then to consider the first few verses of this book, we immediately encounter something unusual. In the Greek language the first seven verses are all one long sentence. You can’t really tell that in English because the translators have broken it up into smaller parts, but in the original, it’s all one sentence—176 words in all—starting with “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” in verse 1 and ending with “From God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” in verse 7.
That was very unusual, because most letters in ancient times began very simply— “Julius to Augustus, greetings.” And then came the body of the letter. But Paul departed from that practice for a very important reason. He was writing to people who did not know him. Paul had never been to Rome before. They didn’t know him personally, didn’t know what he believed, didn’t know what he wanted, or why he was writing to them.
As I read Paul’s long introduction, it reminds me of what they used to teach us in Evangelism Explosion. They said that whenever you go cold calling, the key is not to stop talking too soon. When you first meet somebody, talk a lot so you can give them time to size you up. If you stop too soon, they’ll probably close the door on you.
That’s why, whenever I went cold calling, I would say something like this: “Hello, ma’am, my name is Ray Pritchard and I’m the pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. When I heard you folks had just moved in to Oak Park, I decided to come by and welcome you to our village because I just moved up here from Texas myself about two years ago—from Dallas actually—and my wife and my three boys and I moved into a little house on Mapleton and Greenfield, about two blocks away from Hatch Elementary School where my oldest son is in the 6th grade and my middle son is in the 4th grade and my youngest boy is in the 1st grade. My wife Marlene makes drapes and I pastor the church and that’s why when I heard you had just moved in, I thought to myself, “I’d better go and say hello,” because I know what it’s like to be new in town and not know anybody or where things are, or how things work, so that’s why I’m here. Do you mind if I come in?”
It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did, and at least it made people feel like they knew me. That’s exactly what Paul is doing here. He’s talking a lot about himself at the beginning so they’ll feel comfortable with who he is. And ultimately so they’ll listen more carefully to the things he has to say.
Servant, Apostle, Preacher
Notice how Paul introduces himself in verse 1: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” There is a three-fold introduction in this verse:
He introduces his master — He is a “servant of Jesus Christ.”
He introduces his office — He is “called to be an apostle.”
He introduces his purpose — He is “set apart for the gospel.”
That is, he is first a servant, then an apostle, then a preacher of the gospel. The first speaks of his humility, the second speaks of his authority, the third speaks of his mission in life.
The overriding impression of verse 1 is that Paul is not writing as a private individual. To the contrary, he is writing with divine authority. Because he is an apostle, his words carry the authority of God himself.
The application is obvious. We, no less than the Romans of long ago, are under obligation to consider carefully what Paul is saying. These are not the words of a madman scribbled on some graffiti-covered subway wall. Nor are these the fallible musings of a newspaper columnist who writes because he has a space to fill. No! These are the words of God to us, and we will do well to take them with utter seriousness.
Seed of David, Son of God
Next notice how Paul introduces his message in verses 2-4. “The gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” Paul’s message is the Gospel, and the first point he makes is that the Gospel was promised in the Old Testament. All the prophets spoke about it, Abraham looked forward to it, Moses looked forward to it, David looked forward to it, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel—they all looked forward to it.
What is the meaning of that? The gospel is good news, but it is not new news. In many ways, the gospel is old news because the prophets predicted that the Messiah would someday come and save his people. That means that the gospel is not a sudden expedient, or a theological novelty dreamed up at the last second by the Almighty. It was part of the plan of God from the beginning.
Do you remember the story of Jesus meeting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the day of his resur-rection? The two men were so distraught that they didn’t recognize it was Jesus. They had heard rumors about the resurrection but they didn’t believe it. Jesus rebuked them by saying, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26) Then Luke tells us that beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. That’s one Bible conference I wish I could have attended—an audience of two taught by the Son of God.
The Powerful Son of God
Verses 3-4 demand our attention because they spell out who Jesus is. In verse 3 Paul explains that Jesus was born of the seed of David. That’s the human side of Jesus. Then in verse 4 he explains the divine side, “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.” In these two verses Paul gives us a very clear picture of the two natures of our Lord. According to the flesh he was a descendant of David. On the divine side, he was demonstrated to be the powerful Son of God by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.
Here in two verses is the ancient doctrine of the two natures of Jesus Christ.
Verse 3 — His human nature
Verse 4 — His divine nature
As to his human nature, he was born of the seed of David. As to his divine nature, he was declared the powerful Son of God by virtue of his resurrection from the dead. In the words of orthodox theology, these two verses present us with the theanthropic person of Jesus—Fully man and fully God.
Note the key event that demonstrates who he really is: The resurrection from the dead. The empty tomb is the watershed that forever separates Jesus Christ from all other religious leaders. As long as Jesus was dead, he was nothing more than a good moral teacher, a nice man who came to a bad end, a great leader crucified by those who misunderstood him.
But if he’s still dead, then we have no faith. If he’s still dead, then Christianity is just a hoax. If he’s still dead, then we are deluding ourselves this morning. If he’s still dead, then we’re the biggest fools in the world.
But he’s not dead. He is alive today! And because he is alive, he is able to save forever those who come to him. A dead Christ can save no one. A dead Christ is no help to you and to me in our struggles and in our difficulties. But as Paul says, because he has risen from the dead, he is now proved to be the powerful Son of God—with more than enough power to help you and me.
“All You Need to Do is Rise From the Dead”
During the years following the French Revolution, there was a great turning away from the Christian religion. A certain man named La Revilliere concocted a new religion which he thought was far superior to Christianity, but had trouble convincing others to follow him. Seeking help, he went to the great diplomat Charles de Talleyrand for advice. His advice was simple. “To ensure success for your new religion, all you need to do is have yourself crucified and then rise from the dead on the third day.”
He’s right, of course. It is the resurrection which demonstrates forever that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from heaven.
Note the five titles of Christ. He is the Seed of David, the Son of God, the Savior, the Messiah (which is what “Christ” means), and he is the Lord. As the Seed of David, he was born in Bethlehem. As the powerful Son of God, he rose from the dead. As sovereign Lord, he is exalted over the all the universe. He is Son forever, Messiah forever, and Lord forever!
Apostle to the Nations
In verses 5-6 Paul introduces his mission: He is the apostle to the gentiles. “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith, and you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” The key is the word “Gentiles.” It is the Greek word ethnos, from which we get our English word “ethnic.” The literal meaning is “nations.” Paul was called directly by Jesus Christ to preach the gospel to the nations. In our terminology, Paul was a Jewish Christian who was serving as the very first foreign missionary. Paul’s mission field was the nations of the world.
Notice how it all comes together in three simple statements:
His message was the gospel.
His field was the world.
His goal was winning men to faith in Jesus Christ.
What a wonderfully clear philosophy of life that is. How simple, yet how profound. No wonder he was such a great success. May God help us to simplify our lives to the few things that really matter. Or to put it another way, May the things that matter most to God become the things that matter most to us.
From Saint Louis to Saint Ray
Verse 7 closes out Paul’s introduction with his description of his readers. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Those simple words contain many great truths, but for the moment focus on the titles he gives to the Roman believers. First of all, they are “loved by God.” That’s a reminder that salvation begins with God, not with us. All that God does for us, he does because he loves us. We read in John 3:16 that God loves the whole world. That’s true. But it’s also true that he loves his children in a special way. Many people talk about the fact that they are not demonstrative in their love. They hold it back, they keep their thoughts to themselves. Thank God, our Father is not like that. He loves us so much that he couldn’t hold back. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Good news, my friend, God loves you. And nothing you can do can make him stop loving you.
Second, they are “called to be saints.” Or, more literally “called saints.” Christians are called saints, because in God’s eyes that is what we are. It is interesting to note what the Bible says about sainthood compared with what certain religions teach. Bible sainthood is not a category reserved for a few super-Christians who work miracles on earth. When you believe in Christ, you become a saint. But some religions say you have to be dead for a long time before you can become a saint. Not so! The Bible teaches that all believers are saints the moment they trust Christ.
Back to Louis Talbot. In his book on Romans, he tells of visiting a home here in Chicago and talking with a woman whose walls were adorned with pictures of various saints. She was speaking of Saint Anthony, Saint Martin, Saint John, Saint Cecilia, Saint Dominic, and all the rest of them. After awhile, Louis Talbot said to her, “You know all the saints, don’t you?” She replied, “Why yes, I do.” Then he said, “Do you know Saint Louis?” She said, “No, I believe I don’t.” Then he said, “I’m Saint Louis. I’m a saint.” Then she said, “No, you can’t be a saint. You have to be dead for 300 years.” So Louis Talbot turned to this very passage in Romans and showed her that God canonizes a man when he accepts Jesus Christ as Savior.
It is just as true for you and for me. It is perfectly biblical to speak of Saint Ray or Saint David or Saint Rose or Saint Phyllis or Saint Ralph. You are a saint if you have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.
Who is Jesus to You?
And that brings me to the end of this first message on the book of Romans. How shall we finish our first stop on this journey? By reminding ourselves that Romans is all about the gospel. And the focus of the gospel is the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, nothing is more important today than that you know clearly who he is.
Paul has already spelled it out for us. He is more than a carpenter … more than a teacher … more than a giver of great moral instruction.
Who is Jesus Christ? Let Paul himself answer.
He is the Powerful Son of God from heaven.
He is the Promised Messiah of Israel.
He is the Sovereign Lord of the universe.
Whether you believe it or not, those things are true!!!
Consider carefully these words:
Why is this doctrine concerning the Son so important? For the simple reason that one’s attitude to Him determines one’s attitude to the issues of the soul. He is to be the Lord in all realms, in the Scriptures, in the atonement, in the forgiveness of sins, in life after death, and in the church. Human reason cannot save, nor can the world with its allurements. That fountain filled with blood can alone meet our needs, but it must be the blood of the Son of God. (S. Lewis Johnson, “The Christ Paul Preached”, p. 6)
Believe and Receive
Reject and Be Left
My final word to you is this. The truth about Jesus Christ requires your response. What do you say about Jesus? Who is he to you? God did not give you the gospel so that you could simply study and memorize it. He expects you to respond to it.
Your response determines your destiny. Your choices are to believe and receive or to reject and be left. If you believe the gospel, you will receive eternal life. If you reject the gospel, you will be left to face the judgment of God. But the choice is yours.
Newsweek was right. There is an enormous spiritual hunger in our generation. In an age of relativism, they seek solid answers. In an age of transience and divorce, they are looking for unconditional love. Unfortunately, so many people are looking in all the wrong places.
There is an answer that will stand the test of time. That answer is found in the Bible. There is Someone who loves you unconditionally. He loves you so much that he died for you.
The Apostle Paul called him, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Can you say that? Is he your Savior? What do you say? How do you answer? Think carefully. Your eternal destiny depends on your answer.