One day in the early 60’s Bob Dylan was walking down a street in New York City. He noticed a stray piece of paper, just a bit of litter, being blown along by the wind. He saw in it a parable of truth being crumpled up and thrown away as trash here in this world. He lamented it in a song called “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
2000 years ago a man named Paul wrote a letter in runny ink on flimsy sheets of papyrus and sent it to some people in Rome, most of whom he didn’t even know. It did not end up blowin’ in the wind. It started changing people. It’s been changing people ever since. In A.D. 386 a man named Augustine was struggling with slavery to lust. But God spoke to Augustine one day through Romans. And Augustine got up out of the gutter a changed man. Around the year 1515 Martin Luther was struggling with hatred toward God, because God seemed impossibly unsatisfiable. But God spoke to him through the book of Romans about grace. Luther later said it was like walking through a doorway into paradise. In 1738 John Wesley was trying hard to make the grade with God. He formed the Holy Club at Oxford for spiritual self-improvement. But he was failing, and he knew it. Then God spoke to him one evening in a small group Bible study as someone was reading out loud Luther’s commentary on Romans, and Wesley changed. The man who’d tried to work for God’s approval learned how to work with God’s approval. It sent him on a journey for Christ, including 250,000 miles on horseback, 42,000 sermons preached and 50 books written. In 1974 I was sitting at my desk reading the Greek text of Romans 9. I had always avoided Romans 9. I was afraid of it. Now I was being required to read it. As I read slowly, one sentence snuck up on me: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and God hardens whom he wants to harden.” I saw the Lord high and lifted up, and I changed. I had a new sense of the greatness of God and of my own littleness, and I wanted to bow in worship. Others of us could tell stories of how God has changed us by the gospel in Romans.
Here is my challenge. Let’s be new Christians again. Let’s start over. Let’s re-learn the gospel from scratch. Every generation must rediscover the gospel afresh for themselves. Let’s do that. Let’s see God in a new way. Let’s be revived in our hearts. Let’s change. If we aren’t changing, what’s the point? Let’s build a gospel-centered church where anyone can change. Let’s take notes and journal as we travel together down this old Roman road. Let’s write down how God is changing us. We’ll share our discoveries along the way. God is ready to meet us. He will not be more ready six months from now. Now is the time. If we will seize the opportunity, we will be different people when our study of Romans is completed, we will be happy about it, and many others will benefit from what God has done to us. Nashville needs change. And that starts with us. We make the first move. We show the difference God makes.
What is the book of Romans all about? God. Not us. Not even grace or law or faith. Romans is about God. If we set aside the filler-words like “the” and “and,” the most frequently used word in all the book of Romans is God, once every 46 words. Romans is more intensely God-focused than any other book in the New Testament. What’s the point? God wants to show us more of himself than we’ve ever seen before, he wants to take us further with him than we’ve ever gone before. The message is basically simple. God wants to say one thing to us here in the first major section of the book, 1:18-5:21, the explanation of the gospel. Here’s what God is saying to us: “You’re worse than you think, I’m better than you think, and that discovery will change you in a wonderful way.”
This section of Romans is Paul’s theological lecture. Chapters 6-11 are the Q&A session after the lecture. But here in 1:18-5:21 Paul explains the good news. Where does he go with it? He ends up here: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). God’s grace to sinners abounds. God’s grace is never reduced or depleted by our sins. It is the grace of God, and therefore infinite. When we are offended by someone, we cool off. We back away from the relationship. But when God is offended, he draws near with overruling grace in Christ. That’s the good news. Paul takes us there in chapters 1-5.
But that good news begins with bad news. Paul introduces this section by saying, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). We don’t see ourselves that way. We don’t think of ourselves as suppressing the truth. But God says we do. We need to find out how we suppress the truth without even realizing it. Four times in the book of Malachi, for example, God tells his people that they’re doing something wrong. For example, God says, “You are robbing me” (Malachi 3:8). And the people don’t respond by saying, “Busted! We thought you wouldn’t notice.” No. They say, “Robbed you? What are you talking about? We’re not robbing you. We’re doing our job. And do you have idea the challenges we’re facing down here? Cut us some slack.” Can we see ourselves there? Our hearts not only defend us but even accuse God. And all our hearts together form a culture. Our culture tells us every day that we’re the victims. And remember – our self-exalting culture is not what we see; it’s what we see with. So we’re not in touch with ourselves at this level. We’re not in touch with how right God is and how wrong we are. So Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17). After John 3:16 last week, we might expect the love of God to be revealed in the gospel. It is. But we need to see more of God. We need to see God as in the right, because he is. We need to see ourselves as in the wrong, because we are. The gospel takes us to the place where we actually admire God for being right and we humble ourselves as inexcusably wrong. Why does the gospel aim at that breakthrough thought? Because that’s when God’s grace starts making an impact on us. The bad news of the gospel reconnects the word “amazing” to the word “grace.” Let’s welcome the bad news of what we are in our sin, as it leads us by the hand to the amazingly good news of who God is in his grace.
As we listen to the industrial-strength gospel of Romans 1:18-5:21, how will the Holy Spirit change us? He’ll show us so much of our sin and so much of God’s grace that our pride will be wounded, God will be exalted, we will be happy, and we will be more willing than ever to be gracious to other sinners.
After Paul’s theological lecture in 1:18-5:21, he opens it up for a Q&A session in chapters 6-11. Hands go up. “What about this, Paul? What about that?” We raise questions and objections. So Paul interacts with us. He wants to satisfy us. He helps us think the gospel through, so that we can know what it is, what it isn’t, how it works, and how big it is. Paul answers six questions in the second major section of his letter. The questions range from our personal concerns to the very destiny of the universe. And as we see in these chapters how wonderfully God is caring for us at a personal level and how wonderfully he is orchestrating everything for his triumph over all evil, where does Paul lead us? To humility and worship:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to God that he [the donor] might be repaid? For from God and through God and to God are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. —Romans 11:33-36
This is worship. Look at the language. Paul begins with an “Oh!” and concludes with an “Amen.” He leaves prose behind and shifts gears to poetry. We see exclamation points in verse 33. We see question marks in verses 34-35, confronting us with inescapable conclusions. What’s the point? When God answers our questions in chapters 6-11, it’s not as though we then grade his answers. We worship, because the answers show us more of God himself. We struggle to understand our lives, but God has depths of riches and wisdom and knowledge. We feel that life defeats us, but God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable. We are confused and often need advice, but who has ever been God’s counsellor? We have nothing to offer him but our need, and that’s okay with him because no one contributes to God so as to claim repayment. God gives and gives and gives. He planned your life. He is sustaining your life. He is the whole point of your life. To him be the glory in your life.
Paul answers important questions in chapters 6-11. He tells us a lot. But we’re not told everything. God wants us to trust him – not scrutinize him, but trust him – because we’re not even able to absorb the whole story at this time. It’s too big. Let’s accept that, and let God be God, and fall into his arms as we happily think grander thoughts of God than we’ve ever thought before. Big thoughts of ourselves get us nowhere. The last record the Beatles recorded before breaking up was:
All through the day, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All through the night, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
But here is our breakthrough to newness and hope: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.”
Theodore Roosevelt and his friend William Beebe often visited Roosevelt’s home on Long Island. After an evening of conversation on the great events of their day, it was their custom to step outside, look up into the sky, find a faint light near the constellation Pegasus and one would say to the other, “That is the Spiral Galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as the Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then Roosevelt would say, “Now I think we’re small enough. Let’s call it a night.” Are we small enough yet? Is God big enough yet?
We live in an age when God is small and people are big. That feels comfortable to us, but it doesn’t actually work. Only a great view of God can stabilize us. That’s how God the Holy Spirit will change us as we think through Romans 6-11. God will grow in majesty in our thoughts. We will fear people less, we will think of ourselves less, we will need human approval less. As we become more dependent on God, we will be less co-dependent with people. We will be able to love people more, and with good motives. And we will be more able to worship God as he deserves.
In the third major section of Romans Paul aims to unite the Roman church. That’s what Romans 12-15 are about – the new gospel community called the church and how to live the gospel together. But the Roman church was divided. That’s why Paul spends so much time here talking about love and unity and accepting one another and not dumping on one another.
Here’s the background. The Roman churches were mixed with both Jews and Gentiles, and probably founded by Jewish believers. But in the year 49 all the Jews were kicked out of Rome for political reasons. The churches went on, of course, and they became more Gentile in culture. Then in the year 54, with the death of Emperor Claudius, many Jews returned to Rome. But the churches had changed, leadership and direction had changed, and there was no going back. You can imagine the tension. Think of a congregational meeting where a Jewish member stands up to say, “I was a founding member of this church, and back in my day . . . .” Then a Gentile member stands up and says, “While ya’ll were out of town, we were the ones holding down the fort here and keeping this church going . . . .” The Gentiles saw the Jews as stuck in the past, and the Jews saw the Gentiles as ungrateful. How does Paul help them? He begins by bringing them all back to the Lord:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. —Romans 12:1
If the horizontal isn’t working, the vertical is where to begin again. Everything flows from Christ himself. He is how we’re able to be the church together. Paul says in Romans 15:7, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” How did Christ welcome us? He waited and watched for us and when we were still a long way off he saw us and felt compassion for us and ran to us and embraced us and kissed us and rejoiced over us. Okay, now we know how to treat one another. When the gospel – not our Jewishness, not our Gentileness, not any other valid but secondary concern – but when the gospel alone defines us, it creates a welcoming environment, to the glory of God. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Finally, Paul funnels all the great truths of Romans down to one verse at the very end of the three teaching sections we’ve flown over this morning. Romans 15:13 is a summary verse before Paul wraps it all up. Here is Paul’s bottom line:
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Boil Romans down to one verse at a practical level, and there it is. Being filled with all joy and peace, so that we abound in hope – that’s what a Romans-taught Christian looks like. Not a rigid, dogmatic person but someone filled with all joy and peace, abounding in hope. Smack him down, and he’ll weep for a while. But he’ll get up again, rejoicing in God, because the truths of Romans have changed him. Everything in Romans 1:1-15:12 is calculated to produce people like this, churches like this. Romans chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, and so on – it all translates at street level into you and me and all of us together being filled with all joy and peace, so that we abound in hope, come what may.
Today we begin a journey. But we can see the destination right here: being filled with all joy and peace, so that we abound in hope. Here’s the best way there. We start over. We peel off layers and layers, years and years – so much that just isn’t working for us. We go back to the beginning and rebuild from the ground up. We have that opportunity before us now, as we begin Romans. God has so many wonderful things to say to us. Let’s clear the way in our hearts, so that he can do a deep work of renewal in us all. Who doesn’t need that? And so many people around us really need to see us changing. Then they will take heart. They too will believe, when they see that the power of the gospel is real. And many of them will join us. Let’s begin again with Christ!