This message is my 23rd sermon on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, and with it we begin chapter two. Some of you may ask, “Why such a long and detailed attention to one book of the Bible? Why this one? And why any one? How can you know it is true and even if it is, why so much time with one book?” Let me give you seven reasons. These are very short and are more pointers than they are complete explanations. There are more, but this is all we have time for.
Why Study Romans So Deeply?
1. Romans is the best summary of the Christian gospel in all the Bible.
Martin Luther called it “really the chief part of the New Testament, and . . . truly the purest gospel.” John Calvin said, “If we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of the Scripture.” In other words, if you get Romans you get Christianity.
2. The author, the apostle Paul, saw Christ after his resurrection from the dead and was commissioned by him to be his authoritative spokesman (1 Corinthians 15:8-10).
The word “apostle” means one who is sent by another as his authoritative representative. In other words, if this is true, Romans is not just the words of a man, but the word of Christ that he revealed to Paul, and through him to us. But is it true?
3. Paul knows this will be doubted, and so he points people to how radically he opposed Christianity as a Pharisee before Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road.
Paul’s persecution of Christians was widely known. Then he argues that the best explanation for his radical reversal from a persecutor to a defender of this very faith is that Christ appeared to him (Galatians 1:12–16) and made him his apostle. He tells these things to hostile people who can check them out.
4. Paul’s calling and status as an apostle is confirmed by the other eyewitnesses of the resurrection, so that he is not a mere renegade making unsupported claims about his private experiences.
He presented himself and his message to the other apostles, especially Peter, James, and John, who gave him the right hand of fellowship when they saw the evidences of Christ’s apostleship in his life (Galatians 2:7–9).
5. On top of this, Paul spent the rest of his life suffering extraordinary persecution and hardship for the truth of what he once had tried to wipe out (2 Corinthians 11:23–28).
In other words, he had not been motivated to change his mind because there were perks in this life. He said at one point, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). He saw his sufferings and the scars on his back as the “brand-marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), and pleaded his authenticity by the sufferings of love he was willing to endure.
6. This letter of Paul, together with the other letters he wrote (12 others in the New Testament) have for 2,000 years proved, for millions, to make more sense out of reality (and make sense out of more reality) than any other worldview.
In other words, there is a kind of self-evidencing power that these inspired writings have because they shed so much light on the biggest issues of life: God, and human personhood, and where we came from, and why we are here, and what the future holds, and what evil and sin are, and what God has done about our sin in the death of Christ, and what true happiness is, and how life on earth is to be ordered so that society flourishes instead of collapsing into chaos. For 2,000 years people have embraced this book as true because it answered the biggest and most important and hardest questions in a way that helped make sense out of all reality.
7. Finally, the impact of this letter on the church and the world has simply been unparalleled.
It was a quote from this letter that God used in 386 to convert St. Augustine, who became the most influential teacher in the history of the Church. It was Romans 1:17 that converted Martin Luther and unleashed in the sixteenth century what we know today as the Protestant Reformation. It was the exposition of this letter in 1738 that awakened John Wesley and unleashed what came to be known as the Great Awakening in England and America, with all its amazing transformation for the good of our two countries.
“Romans is the best summary of the Christian gospel in all the Bible.”
And, to take just one twentieth-century example, an unconverted Greek Orthodox student, Dumitru Cornilescu, started translating the New Testament in Bucharest in 1916. In Romans, he was overcome with the reality of the great truths of the gospel of Christ and was converted. He published his translation in 1921 and it became the standard Romanian translation, but he was exiled by the Orthodox Patriarch in 1923 and died some years later in Switzerland.
Here at Bethlehem, we are among the millions of Christians who have been won over by the truth and penetrating power of the Bible and particularly by the Letter to the Romans — perhaps the greatest book in the Bible. So let’s put today’s text in the context of the whole letter and then see what it has to say to us about God and about ourselves this morning.
The Essence of the Good News
Paul gives the very center and essence of the good news of Christianity in Romans 1:16–17. This is what we bank our lives on. It’s the best news in the world for people who know they are sinners, like us, and who want to get right with God, walk in fellowship with him and have eternal life. It says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith.’”
In other words, God has a great desire to save people from sin and death and judgment. And so he acts in history to provide a gospel — good news — which if anyone will put their trust in it, they will be saved. Paul explains later, in Romans 3:24–26, what God has done in history, namely, he sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to live a perfectly righteous life and to die in the place of sinners so that all who trust him could be forgiven for their sins and have the gift of his righteousness and be freed from the fear of death and judgment.
So when Paul sums up his gospel in Romans 1:16–17 and says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, this is how he explains it (in verse 17): “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is being revealed from faith to faith,” which means that in the gospel — in Christ’s life and death and resurrection — there is a righteousness that God himself has accomplished for us that we can have as a gift if we will trust Christ.
The righteousness he demands from us, he freely gives to us, not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of our faith. This is why Christianity is good news. It is God providing for us in Christ what we can never provide for ourselves, namely, a righteousness good enough to have God’s favor. God gives it to us freely if we will stop depending on ourselves and start trusting in him.
We All Need This Gospel
Then all of Romans 1:18–3:20 is Paul’s effort to prove to us that we all need this free gospel. He comes to his conclusion in 3:9, “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles] are all under sin.” In other words, Paul’s aim from 1:18 to 3:9 is to show that both Jewish people, who had all the privileges of God’s attention in redemptive history, and the rest of the world outside God’s special dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, are under the power of sin and are guilty before God.
Why such a long section to persuade us that we are sinners? Do we really doubt it? Well, yes, we do. We suppress the truth because it is so uncomfortable. We may be willing to make some general concessions that we are not perfect, since nobody is perfect. But not many people are willing to admit that deep down inside they are really flawed and proud and selfish and rebellious, and therefore separated from God and in need of what the Bible calls salvation.
“The impact of Romans on the church and the world has simply been unparalleled.”
I preached in the park this summer, and when I came to the issue of how sinful we are, one of our women told me that a person near her said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” Friday, I was in Orlando to give a message and heard the speaker before me say, It is a great irony that the twentieth century is the bloodiest century in history — not just because of the Holocaust, but because of millions killed under Stalin in Ukraine and millions killed in China under Mao, and perhaps twenty percent of the population of Cambodia executed under Pol Pot, and 800,000 Tutsis killed in Rwanda, 30 million by abortion in America — it is a great irony that at the end of the bloodiest century in history there are people who deny the existence of evil and there are still people who believe that human beings are basically good, and just need education, not salvation. If our century teaches anything it is that the uneducated have no corner on depravity.
Yet very few of us are willing to apply all that to ourselves and feel the desperate need we have for God to do something extraordinary to save us from our corruption and our sin. But the Bible is wonderfully and painfully realistic and will not let us off the hook. In Romans 1:18–32 Paul makes his case that all pagan Gentiles are sinners and in need of the salvation God has provided in Christ. Now in today’s text he begins his treatment of the moralists and those who had a strict moral law, especially the Jews. This may be where many of us fit. So we need to read the text carefully.
But to get it we have to have the previous verses in our minds. In Romans 1:29–32, Paul gave a list of the kinds of things that tend to flourish where God is rejected. He says that people tend to be “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful.” And then he makes the powerful claim at the end of chapter one (verse 32) that “although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
Hypocrites Who Give Christianity a Bad Name
You can almost see the religious types over in the corner as this is read, feeling very smug and self-righteous, and thinking “We don’t hate God; we’re not full of murder and strife and wickedness and evil schemes.” It’s this kind of person who sometimes gives Christianity a very bad name. Many go to Christian churches and are not true Christians.
And I’ll be very honest with you this morning. My prayer as I preach right now is that, if you have ever blamed Christianity for that kind of hypocrisy, you will see in these next verses what God’s response to hypocrisy is, and that you will make up your mind about God and Christ and his way of salvation not mainly on the basis of what some religious people are like, but on the basis of what God is like.
Two Responses to Hypocrisy
Here’s what Paul says about these finger-pointing people who are smug in their own sense of righteousness (Romans 2:1–5). Of all the things we could focus on in these verses I want us to see two main things: Two responses of God to hypocrisy.
Therefore you have no excuse, every one of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things, and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
Now all those phrases tell us two things about God. It tells us that God is kind and that God is just. God is kind and God is just. Let’s just look for a minute at each of these two attributes of God.
God Is Just
God is just. When Paul says to the hypocrites in the first verse, “You have no excuse,” he shows God’s concern with justice. If these people had a legitimate excuse for their sins of judgmentalism and hypocrisy, God would be unjust to judge them. But the whole point of this passage is to do exactly what we saw Paul doing in Romans 1:20 and 32 in regard to the Gentiles. He wants to show that they are without excuse. In other words, when judgment comes from God because of sin, it will not be unjust. No one will be able to raise any legitimate objection.
So the first thing to learn about God and his response to hypocrisy is that God is just, and his just judgment is coming not only on the so-called pagan people who live in sin, but also on the moral and religious people who disdain the pagan people, while doing many things that show they don’t trust and love God. That list in 1:29–31 includes things like greed, envy, gossip, unloving, unmerciful. Has any of us been as merciful and loving toward others as he or she ought to be?
God Is Kind
But the second thing this text tells us about God and about his response to hypocrites is that God is kind. In fact, you will notice in verse 4 that Paul speaks of the “riches of his kindness.” That means that he is not just a little bit kind, but that he has huge resources of kindness to pour out on us. In fact, he is pouring them out on us all right now.
“The eternal life of everyone depends on the kindness of God — not our goodness.”
Isn’t that the implication of the other two words Paul uses to describe God’s kindness? He uses the words “forbearance” and “patience.” In other words, God’s justice does not demand that he punish us for our sins immediately. But his kindness leads him to forbear and to be patient with us. That word “patience” in the original Greek (the language Paul wrote in) is just like the English word “longsuffering.” It means that God may endure months and years and decades of our stubbornness and resistance to repentance.
The very fact that any of us is alive today is owing to this great kindness of God. He could have been done with us many years ago and taken us away to judgment. But here we are. And this should amaze us. Thursday is Thanksgiving. And today is a Thanksgiving Celebration. And oh, how thankful we should be for the riches of God’s kindness, and for his forbearance and patience. We are alive. We are present under the proclamation of his gospel. And we have this clear word from Romans 2:4: “The kindness of God leads you to repentance.”
Depend on God’s Kindness
That is my prayer this morning. That everyone here will be sure you have repented and are now trusting in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and for the gift of God’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter if you are an irreligious secularist or a moralistic critic of others. The eternal life of everyone in this room depends on the kindness of God — not our goodness. And the issue is not whether you have been baptized, or whether you belong to a church, or whether you have walked an aisle, or prayed a prayer, or signed a card. None of those things saves.
What God leads you to is repentance, which means that you have a profound change of mind and heart so that you hate sin and hate hypocrisy and turn to Jesus in humility and faith and say, “You are my only hope.” And trust him for all the promises of forgiveness and help and life that he bought when he died. They belong freely to everyone who believes in him.