Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the greatest letter that has ever been written in the history of the world.
Greatest because it contains the most outstanding unfolding of the condition of the world, the work of God to save it, and the way God’s people are to live in it.
Greatest because it is the very word of God, inspired by his Spirit, and more comprehensive than all the other inspired letters.
Greatest because it bears the marks, and carries the fullest message, of the greatest theologian and missionary who ever lived, after Jesus Christ.
Greatest because no other letter has given greater challenges to the greatest minds in history.
Greatest because no letter in the history of the world has had a greater effect on the formation, and reformation, of the doctrine and life of the global church of Christ.
And greatest because of all the inspired letters of the New Testament, and of all the uninspired letters of history, Romans has been used by God to save more sinners than any other. As David Platt, at a previous CROSS Conference, recited from memory the first eight chapters of Romans, God caused people to be born again as he spoke. At least one individual could actually specify the very chapter when the miracle happened.
Therefore, I have great expectations that, as I try to unfold the message of this book for the sake of the greatest cause on earth — speaking the gospel of Christ (Romans 15:19) to the remaining unreached peoples of the world — some of you will pass from death to life, and many of you will receive decisive guidance for your life.
Sacred Scripture Inspires the Mission
Paul has given me great encouragement that this decisive guidance for your life — your future in missions — will be given through the preaching of God’s word. For example, in Romans 15:20, Paul speaks of his own divine guidance — his own Spirit-driven ambition — and he roots it not in his blinding encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road (which won’t be duplicated in this hour), but in the power of the word of God to clarify for him his life’s mission. Here’s what he says in Romans 15:20–21:
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but [and then he gives the foundation of his pioneer-missionary ambition, and it’s not the Damascus road; it’s the word of God in Isaiah 52:15] as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
The Sign You’ve Been Waiting For
In other words, what took hold of Paul — what shaped and solidified and intensified his holy ambition to speak the gospel where it was not known — was not some physical sensation, or flashing light from heaven; it was the word of God. It was a specific text of Scripture:
That which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand. (Isaiah 52:15)
That is how the holy ambition of his life was formed. And that is how your holy ambition will be formed. Nothing produces a deeper ambition in our souls, and a more durable perseverance in that ambition, than the word of God.
Follow Your Calling
When Paul and Barnabas turned to the unreached Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia in Acts 13, they said they were doing this, “For so the Lord has commanded us.” And then, just like Paul did in Romans 15:21, they didn’t quote a vision or dream or a subjective impression; they quoted Isaiah 49:6: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47).
And I believe that is how a deep, holy, durable missionary ambition will be formed and confirmed in you at this conference and in this message. Not all of you. But hundreds of you. God will take some truth, some statement, some purpose of his word, and track you down and lodge it in your soul, so that you cannot shake it off. It will master you. It will hold you. It will thrill and give meaning to your life. It will be confirmed. Your church will see it. It will become your call.
The Greatest Missionary Support Letter
And lest you think that I will be squeezing Romans into an alien form of missions mobilization just because that’s what I have to do at a missions conference, let me draw your attention to this fact: Romans is a missionary support letter — the greatest missionary support letter that has ever been written.
The letter begins like this: “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). That is who I am. That is my calling. That is why I do what I do, including this letter.
And then, near the end of the letter, he explains how he wants them involved in his calling to the nations. In Romans 15:23–24, 28–29 he writes,
Since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you [in Rome], I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. . . . When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them [in Jerusalem] what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
In this letter, Paul is unfolding for the Roman church the message for which he is laying down his life, and which he intends to take to the unreached peoples and places of Spain. And his hope is the Roman believers will be thrilled with what he has written, and will get behind his mission to Spain: “I hope to be helped on my journey there by you. I need your support. I am not a loner. I need a western base of operations. I need a western Antioch. If you love what I have written here, would you get behind my mission to Spain?”
Go, Send, or Disobey
This strategy of support-raising is why this conference aims at producing only two kinds of Christians: goers and senders. The only other kind of Christian is disobedient. And that is not our goal.
“Nothing produces a deeper ambition in our souls, and a more durable perseverance in that ambition, than the word of God.”
Romans 15:23–29 makes it plain: Paul does not expect everyone to join him on the way to Spain. Not everyone is called to be a frontier missionary. He needs and he wants senders. We know that God will not lead all of you to give your life in crossing a culture with the gospel and taking eternal life to an unreached people. But hundreds of you will.
This conference exists because we believe that, by the preaching of God’s word, with earnest prayer, and a focus on the majesty of Christ, and on the glories of salvation, and on the reality of hell, and on the necessity of hearing and believing the gospel in order to be saved, God will take hold of your hearts for the sake of the nations, and make you world-Christian senders, or make you his joyful frontline emissaries to the nations.
Four Reasons to Go and Send
We only have time to hear Paul make four great things explicit and clear from his letter to the Romans.
1. Every person faces God’s righteous wrath.
The greatest peril facing every person in every ethnic group in every place on earth and at every time in history is the righteous wrath of God against guilty sinners, leading to everlasting suffering, unless God himself rescues us from his own judgment.
Poverty, hunger, disease, war, crime, climate change, addictions, homelessness, ignorance — these may bring great global suffering. But they pale in comparison to the peril of being under the wrath of God. They are all tragic. But they are all temporal. They may last a lifetime. But the wrath of God lasts forever. One of the pillar convictions of this conference is that Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Paul makes six things clear about the wrath of God.
1.1. The wrath of God is terrible and eternal.
To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he [God] will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:7–8)
There are two alternatives: eternal life or eternal wrath and fury. We know Paul means eternal wrath because he makes it even more explicit in 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9:
The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven . . . in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
1.2. The wrath of God is present. It has begun.
The wrath of God is revealed [now!] from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
The depravity of human hearts and human relationships in 2019 are not just storing up wrath; they are wrath.
1.3. The wrath of God is coming in the final judgment.
Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)
1.4. The wrath of God is owing to our sin, which exchanges the glory of God for the glory of man.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:23)
All . . . are under sin. . . . None is righteous, no, not one. (Romans 3:9–10)
Therefore, every mouth is stopped, and the whole world is accountable to God (Romans 3:19).
1.5. The wrath of God is righteous.
What shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? . . . By no means! For then how could God judge the world? (Romans 3:5–6)
1.6. The wrath of God is God’s prerogative, not ours.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Therefore, I say again: The greatest peril facing every person in the world, without exception, is the righteous wrath of God. That is the number one problem threatening humankind, but never makes the news.
2. Jesus bore God’s wrath and bought our joy.
In his great mercy, God himself stepped into history in the person of his Son and took on a human nature so that he could endure for us his own wrath and bring us to himself in everlasting joy.
[God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. (Romans 8:32)
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
And what happened when the Son of God died?
By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3)
This is the unspeakable love of God’s substituting himself for us and bearing our condemnation. He condemned sin in the flesh. Our sin. Christ’s flesh. And when he did, not only was sin punished justly, but wrath was justly satisfied.
God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation [a removal of wrath] by his blood. . . . This was to show God’s righteousness, because . . . he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:25)
In the work of Christ, everything is accomplished for sinners to be justified and God’s wrath to be satisfied.
Since . . . we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9)
No wrath, no condemnation, for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The work is done by the love of God, through the Son of God. And the final effect of this great salvation is the glory of God magnified in the everlasting joy of his people.
Through him [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)
3. God saves us by grace through faith.
In his overflowing mercy, God has decreed that this great rescue from his wrath, and into his joy, will not be earned by good deeds. Instead, anyone, anywhere will be saved from the wrath of God, and adopted into God’s family, by hearing the news and believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and the supreme Lord and Treasure above all things.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9, 13)
And right here, the history of salvation becomes the history of world missions. There is no salvation among the unreached peoples of the world without world missions.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14–15, 17)
There is no salvation anywhere in the world without hearing the news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The task of making that news heard among those who have no access to it is the task of world missions. And oh, how I pray that Romans 10:14–17 will take hold of all of us to make us unswerving senders or unstoppable goers.
4. God calls all of us to share our hope.
Finally, the feet of those who risk their lives to take the news of salvation to the unreached peoples of the world are beautiful in God’s sight.
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:15)
The world will not think so. But God does. My guess is that most of you in this room think of yourselves as pretty average when it comes to your looks. Not very handsome. Not very pretty. Just plain. That’s good. I wouldn’t want you to be distracted by caring too much about your looks. But I can tell you an infallible path to great beauty: How beautiful are the feet of those who risk their lives to tell the good news!
“There is no salvation among the unreached peoples of the world without world missions.”
The reason I say, “risk their lives,” is because Romans is crystal clear: “We suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). And this suffering is both the daily groaning of all our normal sorrows (Romans 8:23), as well as the suffering from opposition to the gospel: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Romans 8:35–36).
Most of the unreached peoples are now embedded in cultures that are hostile to Christians. This dare not stop us. Jesus said he would build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). He said,
“You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:16–19)
The mission will not be finished without martyrs. At the end of Romans, Paul sends greetings to Prisca and Aquila. And here is what he celebrates about them:
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life. (Romans 16:3–4)
And so it will be. Until the mission is finished and the Lord returns.
The Call of Eagle Hill
John and Betty Stam graduated from Moody Bible Institute and went to China as missionaries with China Inland Mission. They served from September 1932 to December 1934. On Thursday, December 6 of that year, the Communists swept into their village and took them captive. They were 25 years old and had a 1-year-old daughter with them. Saturday, December 8, the Reds announced in the streets that the foreigners would be executed. The reason: “The foreigners have ruined China . . . ”
They stripped them of their outer clothing and led them to Eagle Hill. The baby was left behind. John Stam was ordered to kneel before his wife. While speaking softly, a young soldier beheaded him with a huge sword. Betty did not scream. She trembled and lay down on John’s body. The same sword was lifted, and Betty joined her husband before the King of kings.
That story will be told of some of you in this room.
Make It Count
There is no way forward in world missions without martyrs. We didn’t urge you to come to this conference to make your life easier. But to make your life count.
“Grow deep. Get ready to die well. Give yourself unreservedly to what really matters.”
Don’t waste it on superficial things. Grow deep. Get ready to die well. Give yourself unreservedly to what really matters. Take hold of life, which is life indeed. Turn off the television. Shut down your video games. Why should mere man choreograph your emotions?
Go deep with God. Be much alone with him and with the most radical Christians you can find. Memorize Romans 8, and make it the charter of your life. Preach this to yourself every day, and when you come to die:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39)
This is your message for the nations. This is your hope in suffering. There is no greater message. There is no greater hope.