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.