Every preacher out there has his own personal quirks, and one of mine is that I prefer to preach expository sermons. Certainly, topical and textual sermons have their place, but in the pulpit, there is nothing I’d rather do than take a big chunk of God’s word and explain it so that God’s people can understand it. Indeed, unless the elders ask me to preach on something else, I’d like to focus my pulpit time on Sunday evenings on expository preaching. I believe that the better we know the whole counsel of God, the more likely we are to inherit eternal life.
In this, I want to start with the book of Romans. It is one of the most important books of the New Testament, and it is also one of the books most distorted by false teaching. If we want to understand the gospel and teach it to our neighbors, we have to understand Romans. There’s no other way to get there. Let’s begin this evening, then, with Romans 1-2.
The book of Romans begins in classically Pauline fashion with a handful of OPENING REMARKS. They appear in Romans 1:1-7. It’s generally the case that the opening verses of the books of the New Testament are very important, and that’s certainly true here. As we learn in a few verses, Paul has never been to Rome and probably hasn’t met most of the Christians there. This, then, is the way that he wants to describe himself to brethren he doesn’t know.
This description is Christ-centric. Paul points out that Jesus was foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament, born of the lineage of David in accordance with those prophecies, and announced to the world as the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead. Therefore, Jesus is certainly the real deal as the Messiah. Because Jesus is authentic, and Jesus sent Paul, Paul is also authentic. His mission to share the gospel with the Gentiles is as real as Jesus.
Jesus, then, is central to Paul’s identity. Paul cannot explain himself without reference to His Lord. Can we? How readily can we introduce ourselves to strangers without bringing Jesus into the conversation? If we don’t have a problem doing that, Jesus is not as central to us as He should be.
Next, consider PAUL’S MISSION STATEMENT. He clearly explains his goals in Romans 1:8-15. As we noted earlier, Paul hasn’t been to Rome before, but this isn’t because he’s indifferent to the idea. Indeed, the opposite is true. He’s repeatedly made plans to travel there, but each time, things haven’t worked out. This bothers him so much that he continually prays about it.
However, Paul doesn’t want to go to Rome because it’s a fabulous tourist destination. He doesn’t want to tour the Forum, the Colosseum, and the temple of Jupiter. Instead, he’s eager to be spiritually useful to the Romans. He wants to build them up in the faith as he has spent the past several years building up other Gentiles. He’s just as eager to preach the gospel in Rome as he is to preach it everywhere else because he feels such an obligation to proclaim Christ.
How about us, brethren? We aren’t apostles like Paul, but we certainly are called and chosen. We have a God to glorify too, and it’s no less appropriate for us to be eager to tell others about Him than it was for Paul to be eager. Paul didn’t look for excuses, even though he faced the very real threat of prison and death when he spoke up. Let’s resolve that we aren’t going to look for excuses either, that we are going to proclaim our great God as widely as He deserves!
After this introduction, Paul starts in on his main topic with a discussion of FAITH AND UNBELIEF. It appears in Romans 1:16-23. In this text, I think, the whole of humankind is contained. On the one hand, you have the people of faith. They believe the gospel of Christ, they recognize it as the power of God to salvation, they receive righteousness from God because of their faith, and they unashamedly share it with others.
On the other hand, you have the people of unbelief. The evidence before them isn’t even the gospel. Instead, it is the natural world itself, which so clearly proclaims its Creator. All this evidence is staring these people in the face, but they reject the truth rather than embracing it. Instead of seeking and honoring God, they heap up idols for themselves. As a result, instead of revealing His righteousness to them, God reveals His wrath against them.
Every one of us is in one of these two groups, and simply because we are here this evening does not mean we are in the right group. In fact, it’s totally possible for us to have gotten dunked in a baptistery and still spend our lives building up our idols. What determines whether we belong to the people of faith or the people of unbelief is not what we say, but how we live. The righteous live by faith, always conscious of God’s redeeming mercy, determined to lay hold of the prize before them. The unrighteous do not. We need to be honest about what our lives say about us.
Paul next describes what happens to unrighteous nations when GOD GIVES THEM UP. Look at this description in Romans 1:24-32. Here, he lays out a threefold progression of moral decline. First, God gives the unbelievers up to impurity. We can understand this as garden-variety sexual immorality. Next, He gives them up to dishonorable passions. Here, Paul is clearly talking about the practice of female and male homosexuality. Finally, He gives them up to a debased mind. A society in this position has no morals left and celebrates every kind of sin.
In writing this, Paul clearly has in mind the corruption of the Gentile nations of his day. However, his words apply equally well to our own nation. Right now, having refused to honor God, we’re about two-thirds of the way down the drain. Sexual immorality became common back in the 1960’s. Over the past 10 years or so, the practice of homosexuality has become widely acceptable as well. This should give us a clear idea of where we’re headed unless something dramatic changes. 50 years from now, Romans 1:28-32 will apply perfectly not only to the debasement of the Greeks and Romans, but to the debasement of the United States.
Having gone through the first chapter of Romans, let’s look at Romans 2 next. Paul begins with a valuable warning about THE PROBLEM WITH JUDGING. He explains in Romans 2:1-8. It’s not hard to imagine how the first reading of this letter to the church in Rome would have gone. All the way through Romans 1, everybody’s amenning about how bad those wicked Gentiles are. Then, though, Paul turns it around on his audience. Don’t amen too hard when the subject is the wrath of God poured out on evildoers, because every finger-wagging member of the “righteous” has done evil too. When we endorse the condemnation of others, we acknowledge that we too deserve to be condemned. If we get what we have coming, none of us will like it!
This is a powerful lesson for us to remember as our society grows ever more wicked. It’s easy for us to make them the standard instead of God’s word. So long as I’m not as depraved as my co-worker or that guy down the street, I’m fine, right? Well, not so much. The problem is that the little tame sins we cultivate and nourish—a little porn here, a little ungodly anger there, a little pride sprinkled over top—are just as damning in God’s eyes as the sins we would never, ever commit. On our own, we are as exposed to the wrath of God as the worst sinner out there.
Sin is a massive problem for everybody because of THE IMPARTIALITY OF GOD. Here, consider Romans 2:9-16. The first thing that we must recognize about this text is that it is a shocking thing for a first-century Jew to say. The Jews had spent millennia thinking of themselves as God’s special chosen people who could expect better treatment from Him than anybody else.
Not so, says Paul. What matters isn’t hearing the Law. What matters is doing the Law. The Jew who hears the Law but chooses not to do it will be judged for the evil he has done, right along with all the wicked Gentiles in Romans 1. By contrast, the Gentile who has never heard the Law but obeys it in some way finds favor with God because of his righteousness. Righteousness is still righteousness, regardless of whether the righteous are guided by the word of God or simply by their own conscience. Similarly, sin is still sin, even if the sinner knows the word of God front to back and nominally belongs to God’s people.
Righteousness will be honored; sin will be condemned. God is perfectly just, and His perfect justice demands that all be treated fairly in His court. Sinners will be punished, and a Jew or even a Gentile who walks perfectly according to His commandments will be rewarded.
Next, Paul explores the topic of JEWISH IDENTITY. Let’s read on in Romans 2:17-29. This is even more provocative than the previous section. Here, Paul invites his audience to imagine two people. One of them is a racial Jew. He is circumcised, he knows the Law, he even looks down on those who don’t, but he doesn’t keep the Law. The other is a racial Gentile. He is not circumcised, he does not know the Law, but he keeps it anyway. Paul then presents two conclusions. First, the Gentile Law-keeper is pleasing to God, and the Jewish Law-breaker isn’t. Furthermore, the uncircumcised Gentile is the real Jew, and the circumcised Jew isn’t.
This is critically important to understanding Paul’s overall argument in Romans. Here, as always, he’s concerned about Judaizing false teachers, who taught that Gentile converts had to keep the commandments of the Law, particularly circumcision. In response, he points out that circumcision is meaningless outside of a context of perfect Law-keeping. Gentiles who accepted circumcision were therefore, whether they realized it or not, seeking to be justified by perfectly keeping the Law rather than by faith.
Throughout the whole rest of Romans, when Paul talks about works, this is what he’s talking about: perfectly keeping the works of the Law, particularly the work of circumcision. Massive amounts of false doctrine have arisen out of not understanding this—for instance, the doctrine of salvation by faith only. If we keep it in mind, that will go a long way to keeping us in the truth.
— M. W. Bassford