Today marks the end of a chapter. Chapter 16 of the book of Romans that is. Over the course of the past six months, we have had the joy of preaching through this amazing letter. Some say it was the most important letter ever written. This isn’t my first time passing through, but Romans is like a favorite vacation spot. There’s always somewhere to come back to, revisit, or see some things I didn’t have time to see last time I was there. It was a joy. Here are five lessons I have learned from this past trip, corresponding to the five major sections of the book of Romans:
1. Our Understanding of Sin is too Shallow. (Rom 1-3) One of the biggest lies of our culture is that most people are basically “good.” If there is anything wrong with us, “Tis’ but a scratch…only a flesh wound!” (any Monte Python fans out there?) We are in bad shape. So many people think they are “good enough” and they will make it to heaven. Paul comes from the exact opposite perspective. The question of Romans 1-3 is not how could God condemn anyone? Rather, it is how could a Holy God actually forgive anyone and still remain Just? It’s not about how could He allow anyone to go to Hell, it’s about how could He allow anyone into Heaven? We tend to think of sin as breaking the law or making mistakes. It’s MUCH deeper than that. Sin is about curving everything in toward the self. Sin is the deep self-deception of pretending we are justified in living as if there is no God we are accountable to, even while we are breathing His air. Sin is cosmic treason. The problem worsens when we remove God, as a vacuum is left and so idols fill the void. We give ourselves over to these false gods in living sacrifice to them … money, fame, renown … around which we center our lives. The problem is there is no life in these things, only death. This is the sad state of humanity and the bad news message of Romans 1-3.
2. Our Culture Is Confused About the Gospel. (Rom 4-5) The gospel is about a great exchange, the exchange of the righteousness of Christ for the filth of our sin made possible because of the substitutionary atonement on the cross and His victory over the grave. We come by faith alone with empty hands to receive this gift. We bring nothing … but our sin. This is the message of Romans 4-5 and this is the difference between Christianity and every other religious system. We need to clarify the true gospel. Despite what we hear on TV, the Gospel is not a promise that life will go well when we enter a relationship with Jesus. When God saved us from our sins, we escaped his coming wrath but we don’t get to escape all the hardships that come along with this life. The recent film, “The American Gospel: Christ Alone,” does a great job explaining the confused gospel problem of our age.
3. Our Spiritual Formation Process is Anemic. (Romans 6-8) There is a victory in the spiritual life that is available for us that few are even aware of. We are in need of an overhaul of our discipleship strategies. The power of sin can be broken through our identification with Christ in baptism and there is more freedom available. The puritans are a wonderful resource in this area, such as John Owen’s book, “The Mortification of Sin”, an absolute treasure trove. Chains can be broken. We can be free. We need to grow.
4. Our God is Sovereign. (Romans 9-11) Paul presents to us a very big God who is in complete control of all things. We don’t understand it all, and that’s actually good. Not all things are good for us to know, and so God has not revealed them to us; and there are some things that are good for us to know, even when we can’t explain them fully. God’s sovereignty is one of those things. In Romans 9, Paul says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (Romans 9:19-20). C.S. Lewis described this well, “The ancient man approached God . . . as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”* We need to know our place. John Piper’s book “The Justification of God,” is the most thorough work on this subject in our generation.
5. Our Churches are way too Disunified, Unnecessarily. (Rom 12-16) Final lesson, the gospel is leading us somewhere, to a life of complete transformation, which impacts every sphere of our lives, our relationship with God, ourselves, our government, and even our enemies. Reading through Romans this time highlighted for me how Paul begins to speak to each faction in the church (Jew and Gentile) from the very beginning. The conflict which becomes clear in chapter 14 has been on Paul’s mind as he writes this theological treatise and much of this book is the necessary groundwork to create peace between these disunified church members. What’s the problem? Gray areas. Meat sacrificed to idols. Differing Opinions. We may not struggle with the same disputable issues they did, but we have our own and the same tendencies of a) judgment or b) ridicule on both sides are still dividing the church today. We should work hard at acceptance, love and church unity or we are doing the devil’s work for him. The gospel makes all of this possible.
I finished this trip with fresh reminders of how the Gospel puts into our hands the very power of God for salvation, for growth and for authentic community. I have a lot more to learn. Every single week of preparation there was more I wanted to study. I wish I had more time, but alas, a new series awaits us. I will need to plan another trip back to visit this letter again…
To watch the messages on Romans in this series, you can go here.
*”God in the Dock,” in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces [London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000], p. 36)
Here are some commentaries on Romans I found helpful in preparation for this series: