The Most Important Person In The Universe
Here’s the opportunity before us. We don’t have to die before we die. We don’t have to stay stuck with the lives or even the selves we have. We can be new again by the reviving power of the gospel. We can live in his newness all our lives. We can live on a path of fresh discovery. Isn’t that what we want? As we begin this journey through Romans, we’re standing at a threshold of revival, freedom, joy, wisdom. God wants to show us more of himself than we’ve ever seen before. He wants to meet every one of us at the intersection of God-discovery and self-discovery, and he wants to bless us there, so that we start thinking, “I never knew he was that good. I feel like a new Christian all over again.” That is what the book of Romans is for. That’s our opportunity. Let’s begin now.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures —Romans 1:1-2
The word translated “servant” means “slave.” Paul was not a slave because he had to be; he was a slave because he wanted to be. He found more freedom in slavery to Christ than he found in his own autonomous self-definitions. Paul had oppressed Paul. Christ had freed Paul – through the total devotion to Christ that the word “slave” communicates. Paul didn’t resent his Master. He wasn’t embarrassed to call himself a slave to Christ. It’s the first thing Paul wants us to know about himself. He found green pastures and still waters here. And the Bible says all believers are slaves of God (1 Peter 2:16). We are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We don’t want to belong to anyone or anything else. We want to be free of the entanglements that are only embarrassing by now, and we want to grow in our surrender to Christ. We know by now that we suffer no loss of dignity in being slaves of Christ, because he is good. We do experience loss of control, because he is Lord. But he made himself a slave for us, so we can trust him (Philippians 2:7). God came down in Christ and accepted slavery for us. Our whole problem is that we think like bosses. And we fear that God will treat us the way we treat others. But he humbled himself. He stepped down to our level, and even lower, and died for us. He deserves our wholehearted trust, as no one else does. If you’re a Christian, you understand that. Christ has won your heart. You know that you are his personal property now in every area of your life. When you read the Bible, you don’t see it as a menu of options. You revere it as the word of your King. You’re free to fail, because he is gracious. But you’re not free to pick and choose, because he is Lord. You know that slavery to Christ is where he puts his blessing: “I will pour out my Spirit on my slaves” (Acts 2:19). Total surrender to Christ – it’s the first word of the good news of Romans: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.”
The lordship of Christ over the whole of our lives is the watershed issue of our times. You know what a watershed is – the ridge or crest in a mountain range where the water runs off one way or the other. Here is the dividing line in our generation – not whether we like Jesus, nearly everyone likes Jesus, but whether we hand ourselves over to him, to obey him, because we’re better off under his control. Total surrender to Jesus is not an add-on to salvation; it is salvation. When we put our out-of-control lives under the control of Christ, we get traction for salvation. If you find yourself compulsive in any area of your life, you can surrender yourself in all your need to the Lord Jesus. He will enslave you, but he will not demean you. He will surprise you with how slavery to him makes everything better than your own self-protective autonomy. He loves you more than you love yourself. We believe that together. And what we’re doing as a church is aligning ourselves together happily as one, so that people in our time can see what they do not yet believe – that bowing to Jesus brings the beautiful life they’re longing for.
That was Paul’s mission – to spread that message. He says, “I’ve been called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” He had no agenda but the gospel. He was willing to go anywhere, do anything, to advance the gospel. So here we are, as we read Romans 1, face to face with an apostle from the first century, telling us what Christianity is really all about. We can be thankful for that. This book of Romans puts us directly in touch again with original, apostolic, pristine Christianity, before the centuries and centuries of distortion. We can leapfrog back over all that and learn again from an apostle of Christ what the gospel really is. And Paul himself is the ultimate poster-boy of the real thing. He had been a self-righteous Pharisee. He had felt called to show everyone else how wrong they were. He had seen himself as set apart to the law. And it made him not a lot of fun to be around. But Christ loved that Pharisee and made him a miracle. He softened Paul’s heart, so that Paul stopped saying to people, “I’m here to get you to repent of your badness” and he started saying to himself, “I’m here to repent of my goodness.” That’s why Paul was so convincing with the gospel. He was ready at heart to surprise people with a message of how good God really is.
Paul calls it here “the gospel of God.” It came from God. It’s all about God. It’s not about what we do for God; it’s about what God has done for us in Christ. And that message of grace from beyond ourselves is nothing new. Verse 2 says it was promised beforehand in the holy scriptures of the Old Testament. You can read the whole Bible from cover to cover as God’s good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Many people don’t see the Bible that way. They see the Old Testament as a book of judgment and the New Testament as a book of hope. They see the God of the New Testament as a kindler, gentler versio n of the scary God of the Old Testament. What they overlook is all the grace in the Old Testament, and for that matter all the wrath in the New Testament. Are we aware of all Jesus said about hell, and in detail, and does it disturb us? If we don’t even notice, why? Here’s why. We today don’t believe in hell and wrath and judgment. So how can we feel there’s anything at stake when New Testament voices warn us about these things? But when the Old Testament talks about wars and plagues and famines – we notice that. To us, the ultimate disaster is not hell; the ultimate disaster is no food on the shelves down at Publix. The horrors of hell have little impact, because losing our health is scarier to us than losing God. But what does God long to say to people who treat him so lightly? He wants to have a whole new conversation with us. What about? Verses 3-4:
…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord —Romans 1:3-4
At this point Paul probably turned to the blackboard, as it were, and began drawing a chart of history. What is he showing us? That God has a plan for this world, he’s working his plan, and it’s all about giving his Son an eternal kingdom of redemption. All of history centers on Christ. Here are the two things we need to know about Christ.
One, he was descended from David according to the flesh. The angel said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). God had made a promise to King David in 2 Samuel 7, around 1000 B.C. God promised that the royal line of David would lead to the Messiah and a new world of peace that we could never create on our own. And God fulfilled his promise in Christ. Jesus was born into the Davidic family, but in obscurity. It didn’t look royal, much less history-changing. The throne of David was under Roman domination. The great kingdom had crumbled into a dumpy little fifth-rate backwater. His own people didn’t receive him. Some king, some kingdom! It looked as though his life came to nothing. It looked like evil was as strong as ever and that the promises of God were a pious dream. But that takes us to the second thing about Jesus.
Two, he was declared to be the Son of God in power. He died in weakness, but he was raised again in power. His resurrection was his day of coronation (Psalm 2; Acts 13:32-33). The resurrection of Jesus was how God declared to us, “Here’s what the kingdom looks like!” So it’s okay if evil is still strong today. The cure has begun. The Spirit of holiness that raised Jesus from the dead is giving people new and eternal life every day. Christ is a power that evil cannot stop, he is at work in the world today, and he will renovate the whole universe as one continuous explosion of life and joy forever. That’s the magnitude of the gospel. Every man-made hope is at best a slap-dash quick-fix on the surface. But Christ is a solid hope. Think of him rising up from all the evil he’d borne for us on the cross. Think of him bursting out of that tomb in the power of the Holy Spirit. Think of him ascending to the Father and taking his place above every name. Think of him holding all authority in heaven and on earth. Think of him as the King, because he is. He is not negotiating. He is pouring out the Holy Spirit of God in our generation, and his kingdom is forever.
Here is what that magnificent Lord Jesus Christ is accomplishing in the world today:
…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. —Romans 1:5-7
Here is how we see King Jesus making a difference today. He is breaking in and subverting evil and creating newness in real-life people struggling through this exhausted old world. Two things. One, “the obedience of faith.” There’s more than one kind of obedience. There’s legal, technical obedience. There’s outward compliance to what the Bible commands. That kind of obedience may be socially beneficial. You have to require it of your kids, to raise them up as civilized human beings. But mere decency is not the triumph of the gospel. The triumph of the gospel is the obedience of faith – when our hearts open up and we trust him so much that we gladly change how we live. We run toward him. We bow down in surrender. We beg him to change us according to the gospel. That is the obedience of faith.
So there are three human conditions, three ways to live – not two, but three. First, there’s disobedience, obviously. Some people don’t want to obey God, so they don’t. Second, there’s the obedience of unbelief. Other people don’t want to obey God, but they do anyway. Third, there’s the obedience of faith. Christians have such faith in Christ, they want to obey him. That is the triumph of the gospel. As the risen Christ is at work in the world today, he is not just getting people to stop sinning. He’s not just getting people to start obeying. Through the Holy Spirit, he is giving our hearts a new relish for God, a new taste for God, so that we love to obey him. That’s real obedience, and it’s living proof that King Jesus is at work in our hearts. That newness and joy within – that is the power of the Holy Spirit that will someday fill the universe.
Two, “among all the nations.” His work goes deep into the heart and out far to all the nations. How could it be otherwise? He’s not the American God. His kingdom is for everybody. I know that some of you are thinking right now what an overrated claim this is. You’re thinking that there is no one true religion for all the nations. You’re thinking there can’t be, because it would put some people over others and that isn’t fair, and so forth. I understand. But the all-nations, Jesus-is-the-only-way claim of the gospel is better than you think. Here’s why Paul could say this with a clear conscience. Paul understood religious oppression. He had lived that way and had repented of it when he accepted the gospel. He was now running in the opposite direction because of the gospel. He was well aware of the problem, and he knew the gospel was the only answer. And the world he was speaking into was radically pluralistic like our world today. He understood that too. And here’s why Paul could pursue all the nations for the gospel with humility. The all-nations claim of Christ is not a function of religious arrogance. It’s a function of his grace to all alike. “The obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” – that gospel means nobody has to qualify. Nobody can be better than another. It is zero-demand. Christ provides everything by grace, for the sake of his name. So the typical human lines of exclusion on the basis of race and sex and class and nation and even, as we’ve seen, the disobedient versus the obedient – all these distinctions are leveled by the grace of God. His grace crosses all our boundaries. He offers every one of us something we could never do for ourselves – a new heart that loves him and wants to do the right thing for the sake of his name. No more grandstanding. No more “I’m better than you are.” No more elitism but a new humility enters in and takes the form of a multicultural church of peace in Christ that outperforms every other claim of inclusivity. We see it, imperfectly but really, in every gospel-centered church today. It’s the future of the world on display today.
The gospel is not saying to us, “Put your trust in Jesus, because then you’ll be better than other people.” It’s saying, “Put your trust in Jesus, and you’ll find a oneness with others in him you’ve never known before.” We as a church have the privilege of making that real right here, so that people can see it and believe it.
Here is how we step inside that new world – “a slave of Christ Jesus.” Wholehearted surrender. Is Jesus Christ the Lord and Master of your life? Will you become definite about that today? He promises, “The one who honors me I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). Do you believe it? Will you act on it today?