In Romans 1:8-17, the Apostle Paul writes:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established— that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
The gospel is what we believe, and it is what we have in common. It is what we preach, and it is what we sing. It is what we reflect upon this time of year. It is what happened in our life-some of us as boys and girls, others of us as men and women—when Christ called us to himself and through repentance and faith we gave our life to him. The gospel ministry is what called Midwestern’s faculty to teach, serve, and lead. The gospel is what called graduating students, and Midwestern’s students more broadly, to minister the gospel. For some, it is very clear and direct, and it becomes obvious through weekly pulpit ministries. It is a call to go to the mission field, a desire to plant a church, an interest in student ministry or collegiate ministry or any other host of ministries in the local church. For some, it will be fleshed out in the counseling room or in some other ministry venue where the Word is opened, and the message of Jesus is taught. Woe be to us, though, if we ever take it for granted.
In Romans chapter one, we read of a man who did not take it for granted. We see the Apostle Paul conveying a burning ambition to go to the city, the hub of the empire, the imperial city of Rome, to preach the gospel. He was a man who had already given much for the cause of Christ and who would ultimately give much more. He was a man who was dead set to see more souls come to faith in Jesus. It does not take much imagination in the year 2017 to think back 2,000 years and see similarities between our world, our nation, and the world of the apostle Paul and the world of the Roman Empire. Rome, perhaps the greatest empire the world has ever known, dominated the world and was known for its great military, political, cultural, and economic might. In America, we like not to think of ourselves as an empire or an imperial force. If one looks at our influence, economy, and military might, an honest assessment notices imperial distinctives. Rome, as we know from history, crumbled within. Moral corruption, spiritual decay, and decadence came in and after decades it fell to ruin. Many of us watch our evening news and see similarities and feel a wince in our heart and stomach as we see morality flaunted, sexual norms reinvented, the breakdown of the family, the tearing asunder of marriage, and all these other signs that trouble us so greatly. Our remedy, indeed our only tool, as ministers of the gospel is a gospel tool. We are on good standing because Paul knew his world and Paul knew what was most needed. So, this man the apostle Paul, gave his life to preach, to teach, and to defend the gospel. His ambition was to go to Rome to see the gospel established, churches founded, and to create a gospel flow out to the rest of the known world. It is a strategy that is strikingly familiar to our own strategy of church planting in the North American Mission Board in the 21st century. Paul had an ambition to go to Rome, to preach the gospel, to see some gospel fruit develop. Our ambition should be no different today. We should long for God to use our ministries to bear gospel fruit. Is there a people group, a family member, a list of friends, a city, a town, a place that is on your heart? Do you desire them to come to faith in Christ?
I want to bring three brief words of exhortation from Romans 1:16-17. First, speak the gospel boldly. Paul says in verse 16, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel.” To be ashamed of something means to experience a sense of loss or regret in your association with a person or institution or movement. Paul says, “I feel no shame through my public affiliation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Now you might think, “Of course he doesn’t. This is the apostle Paul. The great missionary theologian who wrote 13 New Testament books and changed the world. He is the greatest Christian who ever lived.” But if you remember his pedigree and accomplishments, and if you look at his life before his conversion in Acts 9, what do you see? A man who had much by way of religious standing, social standing, and educational accomplishment. He was a young man, as they say, who was “on the make.” But then Jesus entered Paul’s life. He sees Christ; he sees his own sin; and he is converted and called as an apostle. He walks away from it all and considers all his previous accomplishments loss as he preaches Christ. What does he get as a reward for abandoning all for the sake of Christ? He gets stoned. He gets beaten. He gets imprisoned. He gets chased out of town. He gets laughed at. He gets mocked. He gets any and every hardship we can fathom to the ultimate extreme. Then, finally, he is executed. Yet, through this, Paul writes the incredible letter to the Romans, which in many ways, is a 16-chapter explication of the gospel. Paul begins it with the bold declaration that, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Verse 16 was framed by and linked to verse 14 where he confesses, “I am under obligation. I am a debtor, both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. That is why I am eager to preach the gospel in Rome.” Being a debtor is not typically a good position to be in. If you are a financial debtor, you must pay your bills or face repossession. You do not want to be in debt to the mafia; they have a way of extracting those debts. But the sense in which Paul is a debtor here to Greeks and to barbarians is not in the sense that he owes them something based upon something he borrowed. The sense here is that he owes them or desires to give them something based upon what he has gained. He is the recipient of the abundant grace of God, and it has changed his life. He has experienced forgiveness and liberation from the bondage of sin. Thus, he is eager to go about preaching and speaking the gospel. In fact, he is more than eager, he is indebted to his lost neighbors to do just that. The sense of a debtor animates him and his call in the gospel. There is a direct correlation that is transferable to the extent that if we fail to remember all that we have gained through Christ – our own ministerial passion and our own gospel passion will soon wither. The extent to which we get over what we have gained in Christ is the extent to which our passion for ministry fades.
So much of the Christian life goes back to the basics of opening our mouths and speaking. You say, “How do you do this?” It is not really that hard. All you must do is talk to someone by you in a coffee shop or in a store or in your house. Ask them, “What do you do for a living?” And they will say, “I am a doctor, or a teacher or a mechanic.” And they will say, “What do you do for a living?” And you say, “I am a religious fanatic.” Trust me, it works. I do it all the time, and they consistently look at me with bug-eyes. Then I smile and say, “Well, let me explain to you what I mean by that. I serve the gospel of Christ because a man named Jesus has changed my life.” Then take the opportunity to unpack what that means, and as you do, you will see the gospel take root in the lives of people. Priority number one is to remember our call to be bold, that is, bold in our speaking and preaching the gospel of Christ.
Second, Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” Why? “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The second exhortation is that we must expect the gospel to work powerfully. Paul says that he is not ashamed because this message is the power of God for salvation. What is this message? It is that from eternity past, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit covenanted together to love and redeem a people. In time, they created the first couple and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Everything was perfect; it was idyllic; and it could not be improved. There was one simple injunction, “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But Eve, then Adam, took of the fruit and ate. As a result, they fell into sin; and as they fell into sin, they plunged humanity into sin with them. In Genesis 3, we see the first foreshadowing of the coming Messiah who would crush the head of the serpent ultimately. Throughout the Old Testament we see the prophets speak about, and point to, the one who would come and bring forgiveness. The long-awaited Messiah who would come and deliver his people. We typically sing of it this time of year. Then, bursting on the scene 2,000 years ago, he came, born as a baby and then placed in a manger. He was the son of Mary, the Son of God. He lived a sinless life, and as he did, he taught like no other had taught. He healed like no other could heal. He performed signs like no other could perform. He even raised the dead! But then he was nailed to a tree. He was not the victim of a mob. Yes, human agency and culpability is clearly seen, but it was a part of the divine plan of God to bring redemption to people like us. He was then raised again on the third day, ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven, and is coming back one day to judge the living and the dead. That is why we preach the message that this man is not just is to be believed, but he is to be followed. He is our Savior. He is our Lord. Do you realize the power of this message, regardless of one’s background, vocation, geography and any other way of human categorization? Whether you grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt or whether we are speaking about places on the globe that have no access to the gospel, these people need the message of Christ for salvation. Paul says here, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” because as the good news of Christ is preached, salvation is there for everyone who believes – the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
How does the gospel work? Why is this such good news? What do we gain? What do we receive? What do we see take place? What is meant when we say one has been saved? It means three things. First, when a person comes to know Christ they are saved from the penalty of their sin. What does that mean? It means that apart from Christ the wrath of God is abiding over us. Paul says in v. 18 that, “The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and all unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” When a person comes to faith in Christ, we celebrate it because we know that apart from faith in Christ they will experience the wrath of God. People ask, “Do you really believe that people apart from Christ experience the wrath of God for all eternity?” Absolutely, I believe it. Any honest reading of the Bible leads one to that conclusion. They often respond, “But I once knew a guy who was really moral and who was nicer than my friends who were Christians, and he was always nice to me, but he never went to church. What about that guy?” My reply is typically, “Well, whose standards are we talking about? God’s or man’s? According to human standards, he may have been a great guy. But what about compared to a Holy God? Ultimately, when we stand in judgement, we won’t get to compare ourselves to people who were less “moral” than we were. Instead, we will be held accountable for all our sins against a Holy God. In that case, no one is moral enough. No one outside of Christ will be able to fast-talk their way out of the wrath of God.
When we moved to Kansas City five years ago, we were living on campus in the Vivion Home. Outside of the Vivion Home is a traffic light. When we first moved in, it had this devilish device on it. The device was a camera that detected if a person went through the light when it was turning red. I did not know it was on there. I am one of the people who has always thought yellow meant you are supposed to speed up. Innocent mistake. I am also one of these people who, on occasion, has been known to turn right on red even if I have to go left just to keep moving. It is kind of how I am wired. Just a few weeks after moving in, I received a letter in the mail saying I went through the light that was turning red, and as a result, I received a fine. I was indignant and said, “I have never done that. I do not do that.” Yet, I didn’t realize that they also attached a picture of me going through the light. I was floored because I didn’t even know they had these devices close by my house. There I was, captured on camera going through the light. As indignant as I wanted to be over this, when I looked at the picture, I was defenseless– it was my car; it was my license plate; and you could clearly see the light as well. Case closed. Two or three days later, I received another one of these little treats showing me doing the same thing. Two or three days later, I received another. Two or three days later, I received another.
With each one of these moments I was prone to think, “There is no way I did that.” But each time I looked down there I was. It was undeniable. It was irrefutable. It was crystal clear. It was a shock to my system to think I was innocent, but then the evidence was right there. This is what eternity will be like for some people. The world is populated with people that think, “I have never done anything wrong. I have never killed anybody. I have never stolen.” But with God’s all-seeing eye and all-knowing mind, every idle work is cataloged, every perverse thought is cataloged, every elicit deed is cataloged, and as a result none will stand righteous before Him. This is what we are saved from in Christ, and that is why we preach this message.
We also celebrate being saved from the power of sin. What is meant by that? It means that when Christ comes into a man’s life, he changes that man’s life. Perfection? No. But a redirection? Yes. The sin that once was celebrated is now grievous. The sin that was once pursued, is now being deliberately fought. Jesus changes us. In Christ, we are also saved from the pain of sin and the guilt of sin. There are some who have an extreme weight of guilt over walking out on your family 20 years ago, or having an abortion when you were in college, or taking something from your employer, or many other possible things. The good news is that if you are in Christ, you have been made free and you are free, indeed. If you are not in Christ, it is not too late. Jesus is so good that he will come to you and free you, not only from the penalty of sin, but from the pain of that sin as well.
Third, notice verse 17. Paul says, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith.’” The third exhortation is that we must embrace the gospel personally. For in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. What is the righteousness of God? It is the holy standard that we can never hit, but it is also the great gift we receive. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that is credited to our account by faith in Christ.
True or false: to get into heaven, you must have a perfectly righteous life? Most think false, but the answer is true. No one gets into heaven without a perfectly righteous life, but the good news is that it does not have to be your righteousness. It is Christ’s righteousness. We preach that message, and when we do, we preach good news.
I am reminded of a story told by a man named Fred Craddock, who was a leading homiletic Ian and teacher of homiletics in the second half of the 20th century. He was not a Southern Baptist, and, in fact, he was distant from Southern Baptists in many ways. But he was quite an instructor of preaching, and he received national acclaim for once telling the story of the farm he grew up on. As a boy, he and his sister grew up on a farm, and one of their favorite games to play, like many boys and girls, was Hide-and-Seek. On one occasion, he found what he knew to be the perfect hiding place. Underneath the big porch steps going up to the house there was a little crevice where he could wedge himself so that his sister would never find him. The next time they played, he hid and tried to keep himself from giggling because he was hidden so well. His sister did not see him, and he watched her through a crack in the wood. He was bubbling over and he was thinking, “She’s never going to find me; she’s never going to find me; she’s never going to find me.” And finally, he realized, “She is never going to find me.” He then stuck his foot out so that his sister would find him.
There are many people who have done their best to try and wedge themselves in a place hoping that the gospel would never find them. Perhaps they are comfortable playing a religious game and going to church on occasion, but, they are thinking, “I am going to hide from the influence, hide from the witness, and hide from the gospel itself.” Maybe this is you? Perhaps, today is the day that God has found you. If that is you, then confess your sins and pledge your life to Christ. If you do, all that I have said in this post can be yours, yours indeed.
topicsMBTS Fall Commencement, Midwestern Seminary