Today I can share with you by kind permission of Monarch the second chapter of my friend Phil Moore’s new book Straight to the heart of Romans. The third will be made available to those who subscribe to my email newsletter.
IT’S PERSONAL (1:1-7)
“… the gospel of God … regarding his Son.” (Romans 1:1&3)
Romans may be brilliant, but it isn’t easy reading. It is the sixth of Paul’s thirteen New Testament letters and the only one he wrote to a church which he had neither planted nor visited, which often makes it feel more like a lecture than a letter. Paul livens up his monologue by heckling himself with questions, and tries to build bridges by naming lots of mutual friends in chapter 16, but none of this can stop Romans from feeling like a theological essay. It lacks the intimacy of 1 Thessalonians or the tailor-made teaching of 1 Corinthians. But don’t let that fool you that this letter isn’t personal.
Romans isn’t primarily about sin or righteousness or justification or the role of Israel. It is about “the gospel of God … regarding his Son”. In case we miss that Paul’s message is primarily about a person, he also urges Timothy in another letter to “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.”
We need to note this as we start Romans, because so many people read the letter as a Gospel formula that sin plus the cross plus repentance equals justification. Unless we grasp that the Gospel is about a Jewish man, descended from King David, who was revealed as God’s Son when he raised him from the dead, then we will misunderstand Paul’s teaching in 10:9. We will treat it as a call to respond to the Gospel by following a formula, when in fact it is a call to respond to the Lord Jesus as a person.
Paul was not saying anything new to the Romans. This was, after all, how the Roman church began. Its earliest members had been there on the Day of Pentecost to hear the first Gospel sermon in Acts 2. After eight verses which responded to the crowd’s immediate question, Peter launched into a message which began with “Jesus of Nazareth…” and which ended fifteen verses later with “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Other church members had been there when Peter preached a Gospel sermon to a crowded room of Romans in Acts 10. Cornelius gave him carte blanche to preach anything he wanted – “We are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” – and Peter chose to give a ten-verse biography of Jesus which recounted his baptism, his experience of the Holy Spirit, his healing ministry, his death and resurrection, and his post-resurrection appearances. He told them Jesus was Lord and that unless they received his forgiveness they would face his judgment.
So when Paul tells the Roman Christians that the Gospel is personal, he is not telling them anything particularly new. What is new is that he clarifies for them why conversion means more than assenting to certain Christian doctrines. When the Gospel is presented as a series of propositions by which listeners can escape God’s judgment and go to heaven when they die, it creates stillborn, self-centred ‘converts’ who are very different from the ones which Paul describes in these first seven verses.
The Gospel we share affects how converts see themselves. The essence of sin is to act as if the world revolves around us, so an impersonal gospel fails to deal with the root of the problem. It tells us that we are so precious that God sacrificed his Son because he couldn’t bear to see people like us die. It pleads with us to accept God’s salvation with a promise that he will improve our lives if we ask him to come into our lives. Those who respond to this ‘gospel’ rise from their knees thinking that God just made a transaction with them, so they can sit back to see whether he makes good on his promise to make their lives better. In contrast, those who respond to Paul’s Gospel that Jesus is Lord rise from their knees understanding that they just made a transaction with God. They repent of acting as if the world revolves around themselves, and accept nothing short of a Copernican Revolution in their thinking: they confess that they are mere planets and that they must now revolve around God’s Son.
To stress this, Paul begins his letter with a Greek phrase which was very offensive in Roman culture: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”. When Tacitus, the great historian of Nero’s reign, insults people he tells his readers they had “the mind of a slave”, but Paul says that this is the essence of what it means to follow Christ. Praying a prayer cannot help us unless we accept that we now “belong to Jesus Christ” and authenticate our prayer with “the obedience that comes from faith”. Responding to the Gospel means surrendering to King Jesus.
The Gospel we share also affects how converts see their mission. If they respond to a message that God wants to meet their needs, they become Christian consumers. They share testimonies which focus on what caused them to cry out to God and on what their decision has saved them from. They do not echo Paul’s humility when he says three times in these seven verses that it is God who calls us, or his excitement over what this means he has been set apart for.
The Gospel we share also affects how converts expect God to use them to fulfil his purposes. If they are told that the Gospel is a message all about them, their involvement in mission will lead to either pride or despair because they will assume that success depends on their own hard work. They don’t grasp that it is “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets” countless centuries before they were even born, or that Jesus makes us successful “through him and for his name’s sake”. They cannot understand Paul’s confidence in verse 13 that he will always be fruitful wherever he goes. They forget that when Paul finally made it to Rome he simply “taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”. They think the Gospel is a set of propositions, but Paul insists it is a person.
John Piper puts it this way: “When we ask about God’s design we are too prone to describe it with ourselves at the centre of God’s affections. We may say, for example, his design is to redeem the world. Or to save sinners. Or to restore creation. Or the like. But God’s saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater.” He does it for his own glory through King Jesus, our Lord, as Paul tells us in this deeply personal letter about God’s Gospel regarding his Son.
 He had not visited the Colossian church either, but at least he had planted it through one of his converts.
 2 Timothy 2:8.
 Paul stresses that Jesus is both man and God by two similar phrases in verses 3 and 4: kata sarka and kata pneuma, or according to the flesh and according to the Spirit.
 He does this as much to noblemen (“Histories”, 5.9) as to former slaves (“Annals”, 15.54).
 Verses 5 & 6. Paul stresses the link between faith and obedience again in 15:18-19 & 16:26.
 The passive word klêtos, or called, in verses 1,6&7 sets Paul up for his teaching in chapters 9 to 11.
 Acts 28:31. Luke also summarises Paul’s message in Rome as “the kingdom of God”.
 John Piper in “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist” (1986).