Paul continues in his opening by explaining further what his calling—his mission—is. He tells the Romans that he (and the others) have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith. Grace is translated from the Greek charis. We often think of the quick and common definition for grace as unmerited favor, and that is what it is. Sometimes, however, we settle too firmly on the unmerited part. I do not mean to take away from the idea that it is unmerited—that we don’t deserve this gift, but simply concentrating on how much we don’t deserve something misses the glory of the gift itself. According to Thayer’s lexicon, grace is that which affords joy, pleasure, and delight. Sure, it is unmerited; it is a gift. But the focus here is that our God wants to give us joy, pleasure, and delight. That is an overwhelming fact, and it is the one we need to focus on when thinking of grace. So Paul is telling the Romans that he has been given the grace—the joy and pleasure—to be God’s apostle (his delegated messenger) to bring about the obedience of faith.
Obedience of faith is another term on which we need to pause. Note carefully that Paul doesn’t just mention obedience. We may too easily think of duty. After all, a slave has a duty to a master. A subject has a duty to a king. A student has a duty to a teacher. A citizen has a duty to a country and its laws. But duty (and therefore mere obedience) says nothing about the desire or attitude in fulfilling the appointment of duty. Faith, however, lifts the idea of obedience to a different level. Faith is belief. Belief is a buy-in to purpose. When I obey God because I see and agree with his purpose—and when that purpose provides joy and excitement and satisfaction for me—duty leaves the scene and common pursuit of the joyful goal of everlasting love relationship takes its place. Imagine the dog whose master tosses a ball and calls out, “Fetch!” Imagine that dog as one excited about the game—who can’t wait for the ball to be thrown. He isn’t mechanically performing his duty to obey his master. Although the master is still master, the master has still called out a command, and the dog is obeying, the scene portrays joy and fun bringing satisfaction to both the master and the dog. That’s the obedience of faith of which Paul speaks. If you ever think that all God wants from us is mere obedience, read Isaiah 1 and hear God’s words about a people who do what he says with no heart for it.
So Paul is telling the Romans that he has the joy to bring the nations into blissful, covenant faithfulness with their God because of what Jesus has done. Joy and satisfaction overflow from the excitement of his words. And he ends it by saying to the Romans in verse 6 that they too are part of that family of joy—that family begun in God’s calling of the Jews and then, in the fullness founded by Jesus, embracing the nations (Gentiles) as well.
In support of that, notice that Paul calls the Romans saints in verse 7. Saints is an appellation that Paul normally gives to Christian Jews. We see that clearly, for example, in Ephesians. In chapter 2 of that book, Paul tells the Gentiles that they had been far off but are now no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints. Understanding saints to be Christian Jews fulfills the sense of what Paul is explaining. It carries back to the very first verse of the Ephesians letter in which the Greek better explains that Paul addresses the book to two groups. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III puts it, “Paul is addressing . . . two groups of people—‘the saints’ being Jewish Christians and ‘the faithful in Christ’ being Gentiles.” Witherington even makes mention in his commentary of Ephesians that this practice of referring to Christian Jews as saints has support in the fact that Paul does the same thing in Romans.
In verses 8 through 15, Paul goes on to explain further his eagerness to preach to the Romans. His desire is to ensure their full understanding of what the gospel is. Again, our thinking is on the same track as Paul’s. Paul wants to explain the gospel to people who are already Christians. So Paul’s explanation is not about how these Romans can be reconciled to God—they already are! Paul’s instruction is to further their understanding of this gospel in which they live. But one may argue that in verse 16 Paul claimed the gospel was the power of God for salvation, and isn’t salvation how we get in—how we become Christians? Well, the word is certainly used that way in today’s Christian speak. But Paul doesn’t regard salvation as the point in our past when we were first reconciled to God. To Paul, salvation is that process which started with our reconciliation, that extends through our lives now, and that will culminate with Christ’s return and the transformation (or refining) of created matter (including our bodies) to their ultimate sinless condition. That whole process is our salvation.
For example, in Romans 13:11 we read, “Besides this, knowing the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.” Notice that Paul sets salvation up—not as the point in the past when we first believed—but rather as the culmination of our Christian lives and hope. Again, in 2 Corinthians 6:2, Paul, speaking to Christians (not the unsaved), says, “Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” Paul hadn’t lost his understanding that they were Christians, already having been reconciled to God. But he was calling the very present moment their salvation because in salvation God rescues us from sin and death, and every moment you are a Christian God is rescuing you from the effects of sin and death.
Again to Christians Paul writes, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (2 Cor 1:6). The Corinthian Christians had been doing wrong, Paul had corrected them, and they had repented. Their growth, therefore, away from sin and toward God was what Paul referred to here as part of their salvation. In that context, Paul wrote to those Corinthian Christians, “For godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10).
In Philippians 1:18-19, Paul speaks of his own deliverance (same Greek word translated in all these other places as salvation) as yet to come. He was not arguing that he was confident God would deliver him from prison. Rather he was confident that the proclamation of Christ to the world would result in Christ’s eventual return and his own completion of salvation from sin and death.
Thus, Paul’s eagerness to preach is based on this same gospel idea of Christ as lord, freeing us to work out our salvation in community with others as we share him, learn of him, and grow in that joy separated from the clutch of sin in this still corrupted world.
And that’s exactly Paul’s point especially in Romans 1:11 and 12. Remember that this is a church that began and grew up without Paul’s influence—unprecedented for a major Gentile city in the apostolic age. So Paul does want to impart to them what God has given him of the full understanding of the gospel, but he is also eager to learn what the Spirit has taught them. Paul doesn’t consider himself the supreme authority. Jesus is Lord, and the Spirit leads us all according to God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. So it is no mere politeness that prompts Paul to hope in verse 12 “to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
So then, the influence of the Spirit working through each of us for each other is how sanctification—salvation—the gospel—continues to transform our lives. That idea leads into the theme of Romans which we have already discussed found in verses 16 and 17: Paul is, therefore, not ashamed of this gospel because it is God’s power for salvation (lives lived toward God) to everyone who has faith—who believes. For in it—this gospel—God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise (God’s righteousness) is revealed from his faith or faithfulness to our faith or faithfulness (and ours—humankind’s—starts with the faith and faithfulness of Jesus), just as it is written: The righteous (those in covenant relationship) will live by faith/faithfulness.
That ends the introduction of Romans. Verse 18 begins the first major section as Paul starts to explain this gospel that he has given in short thematic form. Before we follow Paul into his discussion, I want to highlight the outline of our discussion so far.
Part 1: Introduction (1:1–17)
I. General Study Introduction
A. Who wrote the book
B. When was the book written
C. Why write instead of (1) preach, (2) not to others instead of Romans, and (3) not write
II. Theme of Romans (1:16–17)
A. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel
B. The gospel is God’s power for salvation
C. The gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Gentile
D. God’s powerful salvation reveals his righteousness
E. God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith
III. Letter Introduction (1:1–15)
A. Paul introduces himself
B. Paul introduces his calling—to deliver the gospel
C. Paul explains his mission—to bring about the obedience of faith
We are ready now to begin Part 2.
Part 2: God’s Righteousness: Judging Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (1:18–3:20)
I. God’s Revelation and the Effects of Faithlessness (1:18–32)
Paul begins the discussion immediately in 1:18, starting with the word “for,” which connects what he has just said about the gospel with its detailed explanation found in the rest of the book.
We have talked already about the righteousness of God. Righteousness means being faithful to the covenant. But God operates with more than one covenant. He made a creational covenant with himself to create image bearers for everlasting love relationship. To be true to that covenant he must not only judge whether the image bearers are truly bearing his image, but he must also ensure that image bearers do bear his image in order to accomplish the goal of the covenant: everlasting love relationship. So in the first sense, his righteousness is that of a judge over TGB against evil. But to accomplish his goal, he entered into covenant relationship with Abraham. To be faithful to that covenant, God will ensure a pure image-bearing creation with which to enjoy relationship. Romans 1:18–3:20 discusses the first aspect of God’s righteousness: his faithfulness in judging TGB against evil.
And the judgment is not favorable for humankind. Adam and Eve had sinned. Creation was cursed. But Paul begins by explaining that in this cursed creation, God has made evident certain things. First of all, Paul says that in this creation, God revealed his wrath.
We need to be careful with the word wrath. It is translated from the Greek orge, and its primary sense is the violent emotion of anger. Yet the word is also used of the punishment handed down by a magistrate (who isn’t necessarily angry as he sentences the guilty). I think we are to understand God’s wrath according to both these meanings. God’s revealed wrath shows both his anger and his punishment. My warning of taking care with the word is in regard to comparing God’s anger with our own anger. We often describe our anger as “losing our temper” or more succinctly, just “losing it.” We mean that we are so outraged that we have lost control of ourselves in our anger. I don’t think we can ever characterize God as one who loses control. That notion defies the very definition of God.
But it does makes sense that a God who, in his very essence, IS truth, goodness, and beauty, would be opposed—even violently so—to that which opposes truth, goodness, and beauty. And so God is angry. And he has revealed that anger and its corresponding punishment in his creation. Particularly so in death. Death is the one sure thing for all creation. Everything dies, and in the dying process we see great upheaval and destruction, from weather catastrophe to violent shakings of the earth, to the decay and destruction of our own human lives. Paul tells us that by this death of our creation going on all around us, we see the wrath of God.