Monday, 6 October 2014

Romans 1:1-15 'Living as a people who are loved'

Who shapes your understanding of love?  Is loved defined for you by romantic comedies, popular music or soppy books?  John Stott says that if you want a definition of love you should not look for it in a dictionary, instead you should look to the cross.  Jesus is the one who shows us what our love should look like!

You won't understand Jesus' love if you don't understand the concept of grace.  You see, God does not love us because we are lovely but because he is love.  While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  God gave his Son for us while we were morally repugnant.  Grace has a love that we do not deserve.

This sermon is about living as a people who are loved and who are loving.  It is about being grace-filled.  Jesus prayed that his followers would be known by their love and that through such love the world would know we belong to God.

1.  Love is the result of being loved

Paul writes 'to all in Rome who are loved by God ...' (7).

There is a world of difference between children who grow up in homes where they know they are loved and those who have reason to doubt their parents' love.  To be a Christian is to be the object of the purest and most passionate love any human being can experience.  We have a Heavenly Father who loved us while us were his enemies, who adopted us as his children, and who promises that nothing can separate us from his affection.  One of the great prayers we are to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters is they may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:17-19).  One of the reasons some of you are unhappy is because you struggle to believe that God delights over you (Zephaniah 3:17).

2.  Love causes us to enjoy God's people

When we realise the gracious love of God we become more patient with our Christian brothers and sisters.  The church at Rome was far from perfect.  There was a big problem there between Christians from a Jewish background and Christians from a Gentile background.  Yet Paul does not start his letter by criticising them, but by telling them how thankful to God he is for them.  'I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world' (8).

It is not hard to imagine what people thought of Rome.  Like all large cities Rome was home to all sorts of vice.  It was filled with idolatry and was the centre of emperor worship.  Yet in that wicked place God had extended his kingdom by bringing people into relationship with himself.  Their faith might not have been exceptional, but the fact that Jesus was building his church in Rome encouraged every Christian throughout the Roman world.

3.  Love prays

Now Paul was possibly the busiest Christian leader at that time.  He travelled as a missionary, he wrote as a teacher, he encouraged as a father in the faith, he gave of himself as a pastor, and all the time he supported himself through tent-making.  Yet he also found time to intercede in prayer for the churches.  'God ... is my witness how constantly I remember you and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you' (9-10).

What a lesson in the sovereign purposes of God!  God works all thing together for the good of those who love him.  But he does not always work in ways that are comfortable and expected.  Paul had hoped to visit Rome on his way to Spain.  However, God had different plans.  When he visited Rome it was in the chains of a prisoner and he had to minister to them from the room where he was kept under house arrest.

4.  Love lets others encourage us

Paul was a giant figure in the early church.  In contrast, the Christians in Rome demonstrated their immaturity through their divisions.  Yet Paul wants to both encourage them and be encouraged by them.  'I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith' (11-12).  

Sometimes it is easier to minister to people than to let them minister to us.  That is because proud people would rather give than receive, and proud people do not want to be in debt to anyone.  But love is not proud (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Love is willing to let others encourage us.  Love recognises that God has given every Christian gifts to minister with.  Love lets others encourage us.

5.  Love shares the gospel

Paul's love motivates him to share the gospel.  But notice that he sees this gospel-sharing in terms of discharging a debt!  In what sense is Paul in debt to the world?  How could an undeserving world say that Paul owes them the gospel?  Yet Paul writes, 'I am a debtor both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish' (14).  

It works like this.  Imagine a king gives his servant a thousand pounds to be distributed amongst the residents of a village.  That servant is now in debt to the villagers until he has shared out that money.  The villagers may have done nothing to deserve the gift from the king but the servant still owes them the money.  The villagers may even hate the king but the servant has still to give them his gift.  We have a treasure that is to be shared with the world.  Indeed there are people who won't hear this good news unless we share it with them.  May God give us the courage, wisdom and opportunity to discharge this debt.

6.  Love is rooted in grace

Notice that Paul also wants to preach the gospel to the converted!  'That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome' (15).  The good news of the gospel is more than simply telling us how we can be made right with God, it also shows us how to live as God's people.  That is because the gospel is all about grace (God's undeserved favour) and grace is applicable to every area of our lives.  Someone has said, 'you never grow beyond the gospel, you simply grow deeper into the gospel.'

Think of how grace is to change our attitudes!  If God has loved me with a love that I do not deserve, then surely I must not demand that people prove worthy of my love.  If I have been forgiven, then surely I am obliged to forgive others.  If Jesus was willing to go to a cross, then surely following him involves taking up my cross and follow him whole-heartedly.


Robert Chapman was a remarkable man who served God in the small English town of Barnstable during the nineteenth century.  Despite deliberately trying to avoid publicity he became known for his great compassion, wisdom, and love.  He was referred to as the apostle of love.  One time a letter from overseas addressed simply to 'R. C. Chapman, University of Love, England' was correctly delivered to him.  He wrote, 'God is love. His children please Him only so far as they are like Him, and walk in love.'  Let us walk in love as because we have experienced love and grace. Let us walk in love as we enjoy God's people.  Let us walk in love as we pray for them and let them encourage us.  Let us walk in love as proclaim God's love to a lost world.

Exodus 1-15 'The Great Escape'

           When I was a child I was fascinated by the film, ‘Escape from Alcatraz ’, the story of one man’s bid for freedom from the famous island prison.  More recently was the ‘Shawshank Redemption’, a film that is well worth watching.  Perhaps the most loved film in this genre is ‘The Great Escape’, staring Steve McQueen, and based on a 1943 breakout from a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp.

            In each of these films the escape depends on the ingenuity of the escapees and a certain amount of luck.  The escape that we are looking at in this chapter is entirely different, it doesn’t depend on the escapees or on luck—God orchestrates the whole thing!  As for the size of this escape, this is not about the freedom of just one individual or a small group but of a whole nation.
Introduction: (chapters 1-2)

In the our last sermon we looked at the promise/covenant that God made with Abraham.  There we claimed that this promise forms the backbone of the whole of the Old Testament.  But as we read the opening chapters of Exodus we might think that God has forgotten this promise.  Abraham’s descendants have not become a great nation (although they are multiplying in number) and they have not yet taken possession of the promised land, indeed they are not even in the promised land.  As their stay in Egypt turned into slavery it must have seemed that fulfilment of God’s promises is becoming less and less likely.

Yet, as we noted in the last chapter, the circumstances that stand in opposition to God’s promises merely serve to underline that their fulfilment can only be achieved by the supernatural power of God.  In the Exodus we will see the LORD free his helpless people with ‘an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgement’ (6:6).

            The situation for the slaves goes from bad to worse when the Pharaoh orders the killing of all the Hebrew baby boys that are born.  It is against this background that we read of someone who will have a special place in this story.  Through the ministry of Moses God will redeem his people.  In this sense the role he plays reveals and foreshadows the nature and work of Christ.  When we read of how Moses was placed among the reeds, found by Pharaoh’s daughter, given to his mother to nurse, and later adopted by the princess we are witnessing the ‘overruling of the powers opposed to his kingdom so that they cannot hurt the one chosen to mediate God’s plan of salvation’.

            Moses is given a Hebrew and an Egyptian upbringing in preparation for his ministry.  The next stage of his preparation will be in Midian, where he takes refuge after killing an Egyptian.  However the end of chapter 2 brings us back to Egypt .  Verse 23-25:
During that long period, the king of Egypt died.  The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

Of course this does not mean that God ever forgot the covenant, but rather that he is about to act on the basis of these promises.  What we are about to witness in the book of Exodus is God’s covenant in action.
‘I AM WHO I AM’: (chapters 3-6)

God begins the rescue operation by appearing to Moses in a burning bush at Horeb (another name for Sinai).  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (verse 6)—who in grace made his covenant with them.  He is about to act upon that covenant by freeing his people from Egypt .

He commissions Moses: ‘So now, go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt ’ (verse 10).

But what if the Israelites do not believe Moses when he returns to Egypt and claims to be God’s chosen for this task?  God reassures him on two grounds.  Firstly, Moses ‘will identify the God who has spoken to him as ‘I AM’ and as the God of their fathers ( 3:14 -16).  Secondly, Moses is given some miraculous signs which he will be able to repeat to persuade the Israelites of his mission (4:1-9).

Let’s think about this divine name for a moment.  ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites:  “I AM has sent you” (verse 14).  While this affirms his existence, much more it means his active presence.  But with what sort of action does God affirm his active presence?  Verses 16-20—he is the God, who delivers his people, who keeps his promises and who overthrows his enemies.

The third person singular of ‘I AM’ is ‘he is’.  God says of himself ‘I AM’ his people say ‘he is’.  The Hebrew translated LORD in verse 15 is YHWH (the Hebrew has no vowels—translated Jehovah in some older translations, but better pronounced Yahweh) which means ‘he is’.  Whenever you read ‘the LORD’ spelt with small capital letters here and elsewhere in the Old Testament it is a translation of the divine name.  Yahweh, the God who makes and keeps his promises.
Moses returns to Egypt and convinces his brother Aaron and all the people of his God given task.  But when he goes to Pharaoh and issues God’s command, Pharaoh responds by imposing even harsher condition on the captive people, who are in turn annoyed with Moses.

Then God gives Moses one of the great covenant statements of the Bible.  In it he says, “. . . say to the Israelites: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.  I will free you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.  Then you will know that I am the LORD your God . . . (6:6-7).  As they experience release from slavery they will know God in a new way as the God who keeps his covenant.  

God’s name is more than just a title it expresses his character, his character which is revealed in his acts to redeem his people.  ‘If we want to know who he is, we must watch him act in history on behalf of his people.’
Salvation by substitute: (chapter 7-12)

When Moses had appeared before Pharaoh in chapter 5 and delivered God’s command to set his people free, Pharaoh replied with contempt: ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go?’ (5:2). He is about to find out!

In chapters 7-11 God sends ten terrible plagues against Egypt .  Each plague demonstrates the mighty power of the LORD, and the powerlessness of the so-called gods of Egypt .  Each time Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites go until the last plague which breaks his resistance.  On that dreadful night, God passes through the land in judgement, and every first-born Egyptian son is killed.  That night is the Passover.

While the night of the Passover was a night of sorrow for the Egyptians it was a night of salvation for the Israelites.  In his grace God had provided them with a way of escape.  Each family was to kill a lamb and put its blood on the door-frame of their house.  Moses explains in verse 23, ‘When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door-frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.’

We see am important principle here—God saves by substitution, an innocent lamb dying in their place.  In this, ‘we are being prepared for a greater act of deliverance, of which the Passover is just a shadow.’ 
That greater act of deliverance is achieved by Jesus on the cross.  He is called ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29 ), his death takes place at Passover time (Matthew 16:19 ; John 19:31 ), Paul explicitly declares, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been crucified.’  And so we too can be rescued from God’s judgement by the death of a Passover lamb.
Salvation by conquest: (chapters 13-15)

There is one great drama left before the Israelites are free of the Egyptians.  God’s power is again going to be demonstrated at the Red Sea (14:3-4).
The natural way out of Egypt would be along the well trodden road through the Philistine countryside ( 13:17 ).  However God does not lead the Israelites that way, but rather through the wilderness to the shores of the sea, where they set up camp (14:2).

Back in his palace Pharaoh has a change of mind:  ‘What have we done?  We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” (14:5), so he sends his army to pursue them and they soon catch up.

Now the situation looks hopeless, they have been led up an apparent blind alley, hemmed in by the desert, blocked by the sea, and now trapped by the mighty Egyptian army. 

As Pharaoh approached, and as the Israelites saw the Egyptians marching after them, they were terrified.  They cry out to the LORD, and say to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us out to the desert to die?’ (14:11-12).

Moses answers their complaints, verse 13-14, ‘Do not be afraid.  Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today . . . The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.’

And so it happens.  The waters are driven back, the Israelites go through the sea on dry ground, but when the Egyptians pursue them they are drowned ( 14:21 -28).
Once again this act of salvation foreshadows what God has achieved through the death of Jesus.  Before we came to faith we were enslaved to the powers of sin and the devil, but God defeated them through the cross and has set us free.  Paul writes in Colossians 2:15, ‘. . . Having disarmed the powers and authorities [evil spiritual forces], he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus it might appear that God’s covenant promises to Abraham have amounted to nothing.  However it is on the basis of these promises that God brings his people out of Egypt ( 2:23 -25; 6:1-6).  In doing this he reveals his character as being one who is absolutely faithful to his covenant commitment.  He is the LORD, the covenant keeping God.

Rather than going straight to the promised land, the LORD bring them to Sinai (where he had appeared to Moses in the burning bush).  There he declares, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt , and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself’ (Exodus 19:4).  He has acted upon the ‘people’ part of his promise.  In the exodus God begins to fulfil his promise by forming Israel into a ‘unified, distinct nation which is on its way to the promised land’.
What about us, how does this relate to us?  Firstly it tells us something about the LORD.  The first question that we should ask when we come to the Scriptures is ‘what does this show us about God?’  It tells us that he is faithful—he is faithful to his covenant and does as he said he would (see Genesis 15:13 -14).  Secondly it shows something of his salvation.  The LORD, the covenant-keeping God invites us to be a part of his covenant people.  He is willing to rescue helpless people like us who are unable to rescue ourselves.  The Passover Lamb, Jesus has been slain that we might escape his judgement.  On the cross disarmed the powers and authorities that we might know his freedom.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Romans 1:2-7 'The basis for unity'

To dwell above with saints we love, That will be grace and glory.  To live below with saints we know; Now, that's another story!

We are not told how the church in Rome was established.  Perhaps Jews from the Imperial City, who had been in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, returned home with the knowledge that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  Their conversion caused a stir among their fellow Jews.  There was unrest between those who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ and those who denied he was the Christ.  This unrest became such a problem that, in A. D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled, from Rome, all Jews (including those Jews who were now Christians).  For the next few years the church in Rome would be dominated by Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.

After the death of Claudius, Jews were allowed back to Rome.  Now Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians had to learn to get along with each other.  People from different cultures can find that difficult.  Their issues were bigger than the fact that some cultures are more rigid about time-keeping than others, or that some cultures are more expressive than others.  Add into the mix the fact that every church has to unite people of differing temperaments and you can see how relevant this letter is for us.

So what does Paul do to bring together this diverse collection of Christians in Rome?  He unites them by teaching the core truths of the gospel.  There is no such thing as real Christian unity where the gospel, which is so wonderfully explained in Paul's letter to the church at Rome, is not preached.  Christians need to be united on these truths.  The letter of Romans teaches us that God draws rebellious people to himself, forgives our sin on the basis of Jesus' death on the cross, and accepts us as dearly loved children.  These truths are the condition on which we fellowship with other Christians, not because they are some lowest common denominator of Christian doctrine, but because they form the epicentre of all we believe.

What do these opening verses in Romans tell us about the a gospel Paul wants to unite them around?  They tell us who the gospel is about and what the gospel has achieved for us.

1.  Who is this gospel about? (2-4)

I'm doing an Old Testament overview in Cafe Church and the key thing I want people to see is that the Old Testament is all about Jesus.  This is what the Apostle Paul teaches.  He speaks of the gospel 'promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son' (2-3a).  

Go back to Genesis (3:15) and you see that God promised a descendent of Eve would crush the serpent's head.  Moses spoke of a prophet who would come after him (Deuteronomy 18:15).  Turn to Micah and you will read of the child to be born in Bethlehem (5:2).  Isaiah say that this child will be born to a virgin (7:14) and describes the nature of his death (53).  Zechariah tells of the king who would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9) and that he would be sold for pieces of silver.  The Psalms prophesied that people would cast lots for his garments and the Psalms also looked forward to his resurrection (22).  

The apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that in his flesh Jesus was descended from king David - David who had been promised an descendent who would rule forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16) -  'and through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to the he Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord' (4).

Jesus was not made the Son of God through his resurrection, he was declared to be the Son of God through his resurrection.  The resurrection proved who Jesus is.  He was the eternal Son of God who had reigned with the Father and Holy Spirit forever; but when he was raised from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, his reign as Messiah began.  He had come into the world as a helpless baby, he had been subject to human weakness, but through the resurrection he is declared to be Son of God with power.  Now he rules as God's promised, heavenly Messiah.  

2.  What is this gospel about? (5-7)

So the gospel centres on the person of Jesus, but what is the gospel about? In his opening greeting Paul introduces some key words that will play a central role in his letter.  He writes of grace (mentioned twice), call/called (mentioned four times), loved, peace, obedience, holy, faith and belonging.

What the apostle Paul is going to teach us is that becoming a Christian begins with God's effectual call (we don't find God so much as he finds us and draws us to himself).  The amazing thing about this is that we were enemies with God, hostile to his rule over our lives and subject to his righteous anger at our sin.  But God has chosen to make peace with us.  This is an act of grace (free, unmerited and undeserved favour).  This grace is the result of the fact that Jesus paid the price for our guilt on the cross.  Having being reconciled to God we now belong to Christ.  We are the objects of his special love.  As his chosen people we are called to live a live of obedience and strive to be a holy people.  From our side all this comes through faith (actively depending on God from first to last).


Now, remember the context of this letter.  Paul is seeking to unite diverse Christians together in love.

Eighty thousand people go to Croke Park for a U2 concert.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds.  But for a couple of hours they are united in their enjoyment of the band.  Twenty-six thousand people pack into Thomond Park for a European rugby cup match.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds.  But for a couple of hours they are united in support of the Munster team.  Focusing on a common love brings unity.  It is the same with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course the unity we have through the gospel should surpass anything that a music or sports fan knows.  We are to be united in Christ through the message of the gospel.  As one preacher points out, 'as forgiven sinners at the foot of the cross, our petty differences and arguments pale into insignificance.  What does it matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile; rich & sophisticated or poor and struggling; we’re Christians together? What does it matter that one of us has been in the church for ages and another has just joined; if we both believe the Gospel, then we’re fellow Christians;  brothers and sisters together in The Lord?'

In the last part of this letter (chapter twelve on) the apostle Paul will show the Christians in Rome how to put the truths of the gospel into practice.  Included in this are some 'one another' commands.  What we experience in Jesus must effect our relationships with one another.

'Be devoted to one another in love.  Honour one another above yourselves' (12:10).
'Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited' (12:16).
'Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another', over disputable matters (14:13).
'Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God' (15:7).

Thursday, 18 September 2014

My ten books

The current Facebook challenge is to name ten books that influenced you.  I thought about it and wrote the following lost.

1.  D. A. Carson, 'How Long, O Lord?'
2.  D. A. Carson, 'The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.'
3.  Ajith Fernando, 'The Call to Joy and Pain.'
4.  Jonathan Aitken, 'John Newton - From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.'
5.  D. A. Carson, 'Showing the Spirit.'
6.  Iain Murray, 'Spurgeon verses Hyper-Calvinism.'
7.  John Stott, 'The Cross of Christ.'
8.  Kenneth Bailey, 'Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.'
9.  Tom Hiney, 'On a Missionary Trail.'
10.  Michael Wilcock, 'The Message of Revelation.'

Friday, 12 September 2014

Paisley: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

So Paisley died today.  A truly enigmatic man.  My attitude towards him has changed over time.

When I first went to live in the north (1996) I really struggled with him.  I hated the fact that he tied Christianity to a certain political outlook.  He talked about 'Protestant Culture', but I was a Protestant who did not identify with his culture.  To me Protestantism was about the rediscovery of the truth of justification by grace through faith.  So Protestant was a religious category rather than an ethnic grouping.  I also didn't like his language.  He would refer to 'the people of Ulster', but seemed only to be thinking about one section of the people of Ulster.

People who met him said that he was charming.  He seems to have had a marvellous marriage.  The RTE iplayer archive has a wonderful edition of the Saturday Live show where he is interviewed by his daughter Rhonda, and he comes across as likeable.  He certainly had a change of heart in recent years, and I would like to believe that this was something to do with a work of God in his life.

I just wish he could have said 'sorry'.  When Eammonn Mallie interviewed him for the BBC, Paisley admitted that the lack of social housing provided to Catholics and the lack of representation of nationalists in government were wrong.  Yet when challenged about his own role in the troubles he would admit no wrongdoing.  Of course we may not all agree as to the extent of his culpability for violence in the north.  But his witness as a Christian would have been enhanced if he could have faced up to the fact that he said things that were unhelpful, unkind and unloving.  After all a Christian is not someone who has done no wrong but someone who loves that Christ who has taken our wrongs upon himself on the cross.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review: How long, O Lord?

There are certain books that are so good that I find myself buying a number of copies (because of giving the book away to others). I am not sure how many copies of this book I have bought. I can honestly say that this book changed the way I think.

I purchased my first copy of this book before going on a placement to the majority-world as a theological student. I suspected that I would be exposed to a greater degree of human pain than I had witnessed before and should arm my mind to think through the issues that would be raised.

What struck me was how thoroughly Biblical Carson's thinking is. The minister that I worked with prefaced his thoughts on suffering with 'I think ...', Carson says, 'look at the text'.

A great breath of topics are covered and I found his thoughts of hell and war very memorable.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The call to single-mindedness (Romans 1:1)

The message of Romans changes people's lives.

Augustine, in the fourth century, had a mother who was a Christian.  Yet he turned his back on the faith she taught him.  He sought truth elsewhere and lived for his lusts.  Then, while in Milan, he heard the preaching of a bishop called Ambrose.  He could not shake off what he heard.  So one day he went into the garden on a friend to wrestle with his thoughts.  Suddenly he heard, from a nearby house, a child chanting 'pick up and read, pick up and read'.  He took this as an instruction for himself and lifted Paul's letter to the Romans.  His eyes fell on the words, 'let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature' (13:13-14).  In his spiritual autobiography he writes,  'I neither wished nor needed to read further.  At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if the light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart.  All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.'  Augustine was to be the towering figure in church history from that time until the reformation.

Which brings us to Martin Luther.  Martin Luther was a German monk who had been taught that God required him to live a righteous life in ordered to be saved.  Although he was scrupulously religious he actually hated God in his heart, for he thought that God required of him what he could not do.  He could not overcome his sin and justify himself.  Then he finally grasped the meaning of a verse in Romans.  'In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed - a righteousness that is by faith from first to last' (1:17).  'I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which, through sheer grace and mercy, God justifies us by faith.  Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise ... And as I had formerly hated the expression "the righteousness of God," I now began to regard it as my dearest and most comforting word.'

Luther's thoughts on Romans were to bring comfort to another great figure in church history.  John Wesley was a Church of England clergyman in the 1700s who had returned disillusioned from America where he had served as a missionary.  Despite his strenuous efforts at holiness he felt that he did not know God in an intimate way.  Then, on 24th May 1738, he went to a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate  Street, London.  There someone was reading from the preface to Luther's commentary on Romans.  Wesley explains in his journal, 'about a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.'  Wesley became one of the great evangelists of the 1700s.

1.  This message changed Paul's life

As was customary in the Roman world, Paul begins his letter by introducing himself.  'Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.'  Paul's own experience demonstrates how the message contained in Romans changes people's lives.

Paul, who was originally call Saul, was a Jew who had been born a Roman citizen.  He was brought up in Tarsus, one of three main centres of Greek culture.  He was a tent-maker.  He was single.  He was trained in the Jewish religion by Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis in history.  He was a  Pharisee and he had hated the early church.  It was while he was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus, hoping to imprison Christians, that he had an encounter with the risen Jesus.  Jesus showed him that he was a rebel who needed to experience peace with God.  Jesus showed him how sinful people can be reconciled to God through the cross.

Paul is changed from being a Christ-hater to being a servant of Christ.  He actually calls himself a slave of Christ.  In the Roman world a slave was a bonded-labourer.  It was not unusual for such a slave to rise to a position of trust and influence yet they were always at the disposal of their owner.  Paul is gladly owned by Jesus.  'He is a bond-slave in the sense that anybody in love is always a bond-slave to the one he loves.  He is captivated.  He is captured' (MLJ).  The great Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, 'I have no hesitation in asserting that as we grow in grace, we talk much less about ourselves and our experiences, and much more about him.'

God was preparing Paul to be his servant long before he made him a Christian.  All the seemingly incidental experiences of Paul's life had significance for his service of God.  His singleness, his tent-making, his understanding of Greek culture, his Roman citizenship, his education in Jewish Scripture and his dramatic testimony all play a role in his missionary endeavours.  Similarly God's sovereign hand lies behind all that you have experienced.  He has drawn you to himself, he has given you certain gifts and talents, and he has ordered your circumstances.  Do you see that God has prepared works in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10)?  Do you realise that God has placed you in a neighbourhood/with a family/in a workplace where people will not hear the transforming message of the gospel unless you share it with them?  Do you realise that God has given you unique gifts and experiences that can be used to encourage the church and spread the good news?

2.  The message is from God

Paul had a unique role to play in the establishment of the church.  He was called to be an apostle.  An apostle was literally 'a sent one'.   Apostles were representatives who travelled with the authorisation and authority of the one who sent them.  In the book of Acts we see the unique role given to a select group of apostles.  The church devoted itself to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42).  Amongst the criteria to be such an apostle was the need to have encountered the risen Jesus, which Paul had done on the road to Damascus.  The apostles laid the foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20).

Many people, who call themselves Christians, think that they can disagree with Paul' teaching.  But change his message and you will robe it of its power.  The church has always recognised the authority of the early apostles.  Peter refers to Paul's writings as scripture (2 Peter 3:16).  Paul warns those who ignore his teaching that they will find themselves ignored (1 Corinthians 14:28).  So if your understanding of the Christian message isn't in line with the message of Romans then it is not Christianity and it will be unable to bring anyone to God.

Romans begins with bad news: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wrath of God is being revealed against human sin.  Then it moves on to good news: God sent his Son do die as a sacrifice for our guilt, and that while the wages of sin is death the gift of God is eternal life.  Romans tells us that we only receive this gift of eternal life when we give up trying to earn our way to heaven and instead put our trust in the person and work of Jesus.  Romans shows us that when we have truly encountered Jesus we live our lives as an act of grateful worship.  Martin Luther called Romans 'the very purest gospel.'  Paul says that this gospel didn't originate with him, it is 'the gospel of God.'

3.  This message is for all people

Paul was a curious mix of a man.  On one hand, before his conversion, he was scrupulously religious and thought he was serving God - he can say that he was blameless in outward conformity to the Jewish law.  Yet Paul had hated the church and breathed murderous threats against God's people - he says he was the worst of sinners.  His testimony reminds both the self-righteous and the notorious that they need God's rescue and that abundant grace is available to them.

This gospel so wonderfully expounded in Romans is still transforming people today.  Self-righteous people like the woman who sat in church for years refusing to acknowledge her need of God's grace until God opened her eyes to see that she was a desperate sinner in need of God's mercy.  Notorious people like the loyalist paramilitary who opened a Bible while in custody and realised that God was interested in rescuing him.  This is the transforming that should gladden our hearts so much that we cannot keep it to ourselves.