Over the course of the summer we will be reading through much of the sixteen chapters of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. John Calvin, the great Swiss reformer, stated of it, “If we have gained a true understanding of this epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.” More recently the great English evangelist, preacher and teacher John Stott claimed, “It is the fullest, plainest and grandest statement of the gospel in the New Testament.”
Nevertheless, I think that many of us would see studying Romans as a daunting task. Although it takes the form of a letter, it is much more than that. It is really a thesis, Paul’s clearest and most complete statement of his theology, of his understanding of Christ and the church, of the human condition and the gospel. If you find Romans difficult at times to follow, you are in good company. Even the apostle Peter confessed, “Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand…”
Author and hymn writer James Weldon Johnson told the story of a preacher who stood up before his congregation one Sunday morning and declared, “Brothers and sisters, this morning I intend to explain the unexplainable, to find out the indefinable, to ponder over the imponderable, and to unscrew the inscrutable.” I don’t lay claim to any such powers as those as we make our way through the letter to the Romans, but I do believe that as we look to the Holy Spirit and allow the Scriptures to speak to us—as the Bible says, to let deep call to deep—we will find ourselves being transformed in the process.
From the very outset Paul makes it clear that his subject and his overarching theme, indeed his passion, is the gospel. He describes himself simply as “a servant of Jesus Christ”—and if you check out the footnote, you will see that the word literally means “slave”. And Paul’s whole task as a slave, his assignment so to speak, is the gospel.
Now “gospel” simply means “good news”, and that is the way that a number of our contemporary English versions of the Bible translate it. Originally it was used of a messenger announcing a military victory, but it has a considerably wider application than that. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue at Capernaum spoke about good news: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). Elsewhere Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ ” (Isaiah 52:7). And Paul had come as just such a messenger.
The good news foretold
The first thing that Paul sought to make clear was that the gospel was not his invention. It was a message that he had received and was now passing on. In the ancient world the Romans had a way of conveying messages called the cursus publicus. It was a state-operated relay system, with rest houses placed every eight miles or so. Here messengers would swap out their tired horses for fresh ones, guaranteeing that messages were delivered swiftly and efficiently. The system continued into the fifth century and there was nothing to compare with it again until the development of the modern post office.
That was how Paul saw himself, not as an originator of a message, but as a messenger faithfully passing on the message with which he had been entrusted. “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” he wrote to the congregation in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:1). Now in this letter to the Romans he traces that message all the way back to patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament.
Of this the great theologian Karl Barth reflected,
The gospel is no intrusion of today. As the seed of eternity it is the fruit of time, the meaning and maturity of history—the fulfillment of prophecy… The words of the prophets, long fastened under lock and key, are now set free. Now it is possible to hear what Jeremiah and Job and the preacher Solomon had proclaimed long ago. Now we can see and understand what is written.
Thus as Christians we want to affirm the value of the Old Testament. We believe that in it, every bit as much as in the New, are to be found all the treasures of the gospel.
Perhaps you have heard, as I have, people who reject the Old Testament because the God they find there is a God of vengeance and judgment, and not the God of love and forgiveness that we find in the New. Early in the second century there was a famous heretic named Marcion. The core of Marcion’s heresy was very similar. He taught that there were two Gods revealed in the Bible: the God of the Old Testament, who is a God of law and justice, and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who is a God of mercy and salvation. As a result he taught his followers to reject the Old Testament in its entirety. But that is the opposite of what we hear from Paul in these opening verses of Romans, and it contradicts the unanimous teaching of the New Testament, not least Jesus himself. The good news we proclaim issues out of the Old Testament like a flower growing from a seed. As the old Sunday school rhyme puts it, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”
As we read on in Romans, then, we will find Paul quoting from no fewer than fifty passages found in thirteen books of the Old Testament. The largest proportion of them is from the Psalms, and I would like to pause there for just a moment. One devotional exercise that I have found helpful is, as I have been reading through the Psalms, to seek to recognize Christ in them—not just in the obvious psalms like Psalm 22, but to see, for example, that Jesus is the man in Psalm 1 “who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”; that Jesus is the man in Psalm 25 “against whom the Lord counts no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit”; or in Psalm 40, “who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud or to those who go astray after a lie”. As I have done this I have found the Psalms speaking to me with I richness I might never have otherwise imagined.
The good news focused
The second thing that Paul tells us about the gospel in this passage is that it centers in God’s Son. Twice he describes it in that way: in verse 4 and in verse 9. The good news that we proclaim is not a philosophy. It is not an experience. It is not a code of behavior. Rather, it is all about a person, Jesus Christ.
I have to say that Paul is a little like a pit bull in that regard. And you have to be. It is so easy to be distracted, to be derailed, to find that we are focusing on something other than Jesus. It may be the beauty of the liturgy, or the growth of the church, or the benefits of meditation, or the plight of the poor, or any of a thousand other things. I do not question that all of them are good and worthy, but they are not the gospel. They are not good news unless they emanate from Jesus and direct us to him.
I remember years ago watching John Stott being interviewed on a Christian television program. His interviewer (himself a Pentecostal pastor) kept talking about Christianity. It finally got to the point where, several minutes into the show, John interrupted him and said, “It’s not Christianity we’re here to talk about: it’s Christ.”
There is no power in Christianity. Christianity is a system. The power of the gospel is in a person, Jesus Christ. It is he, Paul tells us elsewhere, and he alone, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone … so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
The good news fulfilled
A third thing we learn about the gospel in this morning’s reading is that it is for all people. Already in Paul’s day, scarcely a generation after the events of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, the message had reached all the way to Rome. Now Paul had plans to take it to Spain as well. Already it had cut across distinctions of race and ethnicity, social class and gender. Already it was being embraced by people from the lowliest slaves to members of the household of Caesar.
All of that is wonderful in itself, and it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ command in this morning’s Gospel reading, to go and make disciples of all nations. Yet it seems to me that the clincher comes in two little words. You will find them at the beginning of verse 6: “including yourselves”. The gospel isn’t just for “them”. It’s for you. It’s for me.
I remember many years ago as a teenager sitting in the office of a local pastor. I’m not exactly sure how we got to this point in the conversation, but he asked me to elaborate what I believed as a Christian. My answer was basically the Apostles’ Creed: that Jesus was God’s Son, that he had died on the cross for the sins of the world… Then he stopped me. “John, you say that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but do you believe that he died for your sins?” At that point I had been attending church for some time, a couple of years or more. I had been teaching in the Sunday school. But I was unable to give a positive answer to his question. What that question did, though, was to set me on a quest that not long after led me into a relationship with Jesus that was truly personal—and I am forever grateful for his willingness to ask it.
It is an easy assumption to make that because someone is in a church—they may even be in the choir or serving on the vestry or teaching in the Sunday school as I was—that they have responded to the personal challenge of the gospel. Erica Sabiti was the first African Archbishop of Uganda. As a young lad he had been a pupil in a church mission school where he had no doubt been exposed to the gospel. He later trained as a teacher in one of those mission schools and then as a catechist in the church. That in turn led him to theological college and ordination, first as a deacon and then as a priest. Yet all that time he would have described himself as being one foot away from the kingdom of God—the distance between his head and his heart. It was only when he went out one day to pray and accepted Jesus into his heart that the gospel that he had heard from his youth became a life-giving reality for him.
Again, as Karl Barth has put it, “What [the gospel] demands of [us] is more than notice, or understanding, or sympathy. It demands participation, comprehension, co-operation.” The gospel is not fulfilled until I appropriate it personally, until I recognize that its message is for me—until I bow before Jesus, its source and center and subject, and allow him become a reality for me today.
 Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 19
 The Epistle to the Romans, 28
 The Epistle to the Romans, 28