The Author of the Greatest Letter Ever Written

First in a Series of Messages on Romans

For almost 18 years now I have been ministering the word here at Bethlehem, and again and again I have waited, wondering when the time would be for preaching through the Book of Romans. I have considered it over and over. I’ve walked up to the mountain and looked up into the clouds that surround the peak of this Everest and walked away to lower heights and contented myself with other things, because it is absolutely daunting to stand before these 16 chapters that have been so unbelievably used by God in the history of the church and think that God would give me grace and life to preach through this book.

But in God’s patience and grace it seems to me that the time is right. We’re at the end of a millennium and I am well into the second half of what, God willing, will be a 30-year pastorate at this church, if you will have me. At age 52 the pace of time seems quicker than it did when I came at age 34, and the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ is brighter to me now, and it gets brighter with every precious saint who dies. This book is the place where the gospel of Christ shines most brightly and most thoroughly in all the Bible — the Book of Romans.

I’m not as moved today as I once was by the tyranny of the urgent, or by the need to respond to every trendy view that blows across the American cultural landscape. I’m well past midlife and my confidence has grown very deep that the way to be lastingly relevant is to take your stand on old, tried, unshakeable truths, rather than jumping from pragmatic bandwagon to bandwagon, trying to do the latest thing to make things happen in the church. I don’t feel any need to do that sort of thing any more. Romans is solid. Romans is durable. Romans is reliable. Romans is unshakeable. Romans is old. Romans is thorough. It fits where I am in my latter chapter of life.

Romans Road

Now I have a history with this book and I want to tell you that history. The reason I venture to speak about so much personal stuff this morning is because this book is personal. There’s a lot of Paul’s life in this book. He starts off with himself, maybe — we’ll check that out in a minute. He does have a lot to say about himself in Romans 7. To be an authoritative apostolic spokesman in the Bible didn’t mean you had to not talk about what God was doing in your life.

I just got back from 10 days in England, and there’s certain churches and certain traditions where you don’t hear anything personal from the preacher. That’s just like my hero, Jonathan Edwards. You can read 1,200 sermons from Edwards and not hear one word about Jonathan Edwards’s life. It’s all about God. That’s overdone. You can go way in the other direction, where a preacher brings up his marriage, his kids, his ulcers, his cars, and his computers all the time. The congregation will want to say, “Could you give us a little more God here?” However, the reason I’m going to tell you my personal history with Romans is due to the fact that I think it might ignite in some of you a desire to know this book, to be familiar with the God of this book, and to worship him, love him, enjoy him, obey him, trust him, and follow him.

Comprehending Conversion

I don’t remember my conversion. My daddy tells me that I was six years old at my mother’s knee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in a motel on vacation in 1952. All I remember is believing. I’ve always believed, as far as I can remember. I’m sure that’s not true since we come into the world bent out of shape by sin, but whatever God did in my life to make me a believer, he did so early that I don’t remember it happening. A lot of you in this room are in that position and you sort of regret it because you don’t have any stunning testimonies to tell about how you were saved.

However, I learned what happened to me from Romans. Let me tell you what happened to me. I don’t need to remember because I know from the Bible what happened to me. As I say what happened to me, those of you in this room right now, who wonder if it’s happened to you, listen carefully. We prayed downstairs that at this point in the service, not just at the end but at this moment in the next 60 seconds, God would save people. That’s how it happens. God breaks through the word. He makes plain the gospel and the need and the glory and the sufficiency. He does it. There are four things:

  1. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

  2. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

  3. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

  4. Therefore, if you will confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and in your heart believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

So even though I don’t remember what happened to me, I know what happened to me from the Book of Romans. The Book of Romans interprets life. Life that you don’t even know about, you read about in the Book of Romans.

Confirmed Calling

I went to college 1964, thinking I’d be a doctor. I thought maybe I would become a veterinarian if my hands shook too much. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake on a dog. That’s really the way I thought. In September of 1966, in a painful and precious providence, I was in the hospital for three weeks and God changed my life’s direction, powerfully and irreversibly. I testify now 32 years later. He moved me from that trajectory to the trajectory of the ministry of the word. I won’t get too detailed about it, but if you want to know more you can read about it in Future Grace.

The point I want to make is this: That fall, I had planned to move into a dormitory suite with three other guys and did. But in January 1967, it was very plain to me that was not the best circumstance for what God was doing in my life. I wanted to study, I wanted to pray, and I wanted to think, and the dynamic of that situation was not ideal. So I made a special, mid-year plea and was allowed to move to Elliot Hall alone in a single room. I lived in a single room for the next year and a half so that I could pursue God, read, and pray.

I can almost smell the book I was reading now, and I can surely see it. It was yellow and had big, black print on the front. There was nothing very fancy in those days on paperbacks. It was a book written by John Stott called Men Made New: An exposition of Romans 5–8.

I can remember reading those pages at my desk in that room like it was yesterday because of the powerful work that was going on in my life, confirming what happened in September 1966. It was confirmed that this is my life; this handling of the Word of God is what I wanted to do more than anything. I wanted to know this book the way John Stott knew Romans 5-8. So Romans became, not only the interpretation of my conversion, it became the confirmation of my calling to the ministry.

Clarified Vision

Then came seminary, where I attended from 1968 to 1971 in Pasadena, along with the cataclysmic effect of two great classes. There were more than two, but I’ll single out two great ones. First, there was a class on Romans 1-8 with Daniel Fuller where phrase by phrase for 14 weeks my mind was blown. Second, there was a climactic class called “Unity the Bible”, in which Romans 9-11 became the substructure of reality, and all the pieces were put in place that have never changed to this day — the great discoveries of the sovereignty of God over all things and the magnification of his name in the enjoyment of him because that’s the end for which God created the world. Everything fell into place with Romans being the foundation on which it all stood.

Then I spent three years in Germany to study and six years teaching at Bethel College, over and over again returning to the stream of the sovereignty of God. I watched over and over as Romans 9 moved onto center stage with controversy regarding what that chapter is all about — these awesome pictures of the sovereign freedom of God as the creator.

In the fall of 1979, I was given a sabbatical and I knew what I had to do with this sabbatical. I had to settle it: What is Romans 9 saying about this God? If it says what it looks like it’s saying, then many people don’t know the true God. So for four months I labored, and out of that laboring came something totally unexpected, namely a call to the pastorate. What God said in a sentence over and over again through October and November is this: “I, the God of Romans 9, will be heralded, and not just analyzed or explained. I, the God of Romans 9, John Piper, will be proclaimed and heralded, not just analyzed and explained.”

On October 14, 1979, late at night Noël was in bed, and so was Abraham in her womb. Karsten and Benjamin were asleep, and God came. It was one of those times something like what Blaise Pascal experienced. After it had happened he wrote it down, sewed it into his coat, and wore it the rest of his life next to his heart. “Midnight fire,” was the way Pascal said it. I just went back yesterday and read the seven pages that I wrote for those several hours that night. It begins like this:

I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. The urge is almost overwhelming.

And by 1:00am it had become overwhelming. I continued:

It takes this form: I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people.

That was my call away from Bethel to the pastorate, and then in the providence of God, Bethlehem Baptist Church (via Marvin Anderson) called and I answered the phone. I didn’t know where this church was, and he explained they were in a search process, and I began to talk and by February it was done. And in June 1980, I came.

So I understand my conversion, my theological foundations in seminary, my call to the ministry and its confirmation, and my turn from being a teacher to a preacher and a pastor, all out of the milieu created by the Book of Romans.

Scaling the Mountain

Now I’ve been here 18 years, and I’ve walked up to the task of preaching through Romans and I’ve walked away from it, saying, “It’ll take too long. It’s too hard. There are chapters in here I’m not sure I get yet,” and so I’ve done other things that I thought were more manageable. But it isn’t as though in these 18 years we as a congregation have neglected Romans or the truth of Romans. In fact, for those of us who’ve been around for some time, would we not say it’s Romans 8:28 and it’s Romans 8:32 that have brought us through these years together?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

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? (Romans 8:32).

I read John Stott’s preface to his commentary on Romans yesterday. I say with him, as he came near to the end of his career of preaching at All Souls Church in London, that he has recited the final triumphant verses of Romans 8 at innumerable funerals and they have never ceased to be sweet to him. I say the same thing:

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.

How many funerals have we said that in? I like to preach at funerals more than marriages because at funerals, people lean on God. At marriages, idolatry can be rampant because everything goes right at wedding time and nothing seems to have gone right at funeral time. The gospel is designed for people for whom nothing goes right. I love the gospel and I love the Book of Romans, so we’re going to tackle it. You need to pray. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, said, “I think that the Epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence.” John Knox, not the Scot but the New Testament scholar, said, “Romans is unquestionably the most important theological work ever written.”

Purchased, Called, and Set Apart

So here’s the question this morning. How did that happen? How did a former Pharisee who hated Christianity with all his might, breathed out threats and murder against it (Acts 9:1), participated in killing the first Christian martyr, and persecuted the church violently — how did that man come to write a 7,100-word letter, about 22 pages long in my Bible, that has changed the face of the world, and that every Christian leader for 2,000 years has lit his smoldering wick in for all these centuries? How did a man like that come to write such a thing? The answer is given in verse 1 of chapter 1. That’s all we’re going to look at this morning. So if you wonder, “How long is this series going to be?” I have absolutely no idea. I reckon at least four weeks on the first seven verses, but if I see things that I think you need to see, all I’ve got is heaven in front of me. Romans 1:1 says:

Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.

There are three phrases here. We’ll look at them. I want you to see the man, I want you to see his letter, and I want you to see his God. And just by way of application right off the bat, sometimes you read a verse and even before the exposition comes it says a word to you so personally that it sort of skips over the exposition. I just have a feeling that the word that blurts itself out here is that what matters in this verse isn’t who Paul is; it’s whose Paul is. Do you see that in those three phrases? He’s a servant, bought by another; he’s a called one, called by another; and he’s a set apart one, set apart by another. There’s somebody else in this verse. Paul looks like he’s what this verse is about, but this verse is not about Paul. It’s about the one who bought him, called him, and set him apart. There’s somebody lurking behind this man.

I think I said to the children in the first service: “You can get this, children. The big questions in life are not, ‘Who am I?’ Rather, the big question in life is, ‘Whose am I?’” And I told them to go home and ask mommy and daddy what that meant in order to force the parents to come to terms with it. So I just press this on you now. You have to answer that question: Whose are you? That’s the issue.

In the 21st century, we get bent out of shape about self-identity and stuff like that. We focus on who we are and our worth and esteem and value and all that. But when you read the Bible, the huge issue is being in right relation to the God to whom you belong. So let that be the question hanging over this verse.

Bondservant of Christ

The first phrase is “a bondservant of Christ Jesus.” Now we religious types who have read the Bible for dozens of years, we have to realize what a shocking phrase that is. We have to decide here, if this man’s crazy. Jesus Christ, according to Tacitus, a secular witness, as well as all the Christian witnesses, as well as Josephus said, “Jesus died 25 years ago.” If he’s dead he’s not the master of anybody. But Paul said, “He’s my master and he’s alive. I am a slave of the living Christ Jesus.”

So you have to decide now at the beginning of this book: Are these the rantings of a madman who thinks people die and then pop up out of the grave three days later and become masters of people? Is he a crazy man, or did possibly that happen? That’s reality, and all the people in the world who ignore that or mock that are unreality. You have to decide this. These are huge issues. Is he crazy to call himself the bondservant of Christ Jesus? And what does that mean to be the bondservant? It means he’s bought by Jesus, owned by Jesus, and ruled by Jesus. I’ll show you where I get that. In 1 Corinthians 7:23 Paul says:

You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.

To be a slave of somebody is to have been bought by them, so he calls himself a slave or a bondservant of Christ, which means Christ bought him. That’s what he says: “Christ bought me. And since he bought me, he owns me.” If you’re a Christian this morning, you are doubly owned by God. You are owned by virtue of creation and you are owned by virtue of purchase. You are doubly not your own — doubly his. He owns you. He can do with you as he pleases, which leads us to the third thing it means, namely that he rules you and that what you want to do is please him. Where do I get that? Galatians 1:10 says:

Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

He is saying, “If I were trying to please men, I would not be the bondservant of Christ. But I am the bondservant of Christ, therefore I don’t give a rip about pleasing men unless my pleasing them might lead them to please my master.” That’s what Romans 15:2 is saying: Let us seek to please one another for edification that we might glorify God through bringing others to him.

But what’s driving this man is a radical orientation on Christ because Christ bought him, owns him, and rules him now. All of his thinking is, “How can I please him? How can I honor him? How can I magnify him?” What we want to create in Bethlehem, and I know that the vast majority of you are with me on this, is a church of people who are radically oriented on pleasing Christ, honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, and letting the chips fall where they will instead of being what most people are; namely, second-handers.

I get that phrase from Ayn Rand who wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged. She despised second-handers, which are people who have no vision and values of their own for which they live triumphantly and are always looking over their shoulder wondering, “I wonder what they think about this, and I wonder what they think about this, and I wonder what they think about that.” They live their whole life in the place of a second-hander, always trying to get into other people’s good graces and be liked and stroked and praised and complimented and paid. It’s a horrible way to live. Paul said, “I am owned by another. I have been bought, I am ruled, and I have one person to please — Christ. He has revealed his Word to me and that’s my life.” Let’s be like that.

So we’re not dealing here with a man and his genius. Here in Romans, we’re dealing with a man and his owner, his ruler, and his God. This is no ordinary letter.

Called to be an Apostle

The second phrase is “called to be an apostle.” Notice the passive verb again. For every phrase here there’s somebody else at work. He was bought and belongs to another, he was called by another, and he was set apart by another. Who is this other? It’s God in Christ. He’s the main actor here in verse 1. We’re not dealing here with the work of a man. We’re dealing here with the work of God in a man. But what does apostle mean?

To be an apostle, you had to have seen the risen Christ with your eyes so that you could be an authoritative, authentic, firsthand witness. That’s the first qualification. The second qualification is that you had to have been commissioned by Christ to be an authoritative spokesman and representative on his behalf. That’s what it meant to be an apostle, and Paul claimed to be that.

In 1 Corinthians 15:7 he says:

[Jesus] appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

What Jesus did, breaking into Paul’s life on the Damascus road, standing forth and revealing himself in glory, was to enable him to join the 12 and be a latecomer in the apostolic band. He called himself “one born out of season.” Then Acts 26:16 describes the commission. Jesus says to him:

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.

Then, on the basis of the seeing and the commissioning, Paul teaches that he and the other apostles are the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). The church was founded on the apostles and the prophets.

Now, if we asked today, “If the apostles are the foundation of the church, where are they? Where’s the foundation today?” The answer is right here in the book, especially Romans. The apostolic deposit was left behind, and they died. That is not a repeatable office — that authoritative seeing of Christ, being commissioned by Christ, speaking his authoritative word so that the church would be built on a rock. That’s over, and now we stand here as a church. If John Piper ever stands anywhere else than here, you go to those elders and get me removed fast.

Set Apart for the Gospel of God

Then the third phrase says Paul was not only bought, made a slave, owned, and ruled, and not only was he called to be an apostle, but he was also “set apart for the gospel of God.” Now, when did that happen? When was Paul set apart for the gospel of God? He answers that question in Galatians 1:15 like this:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…

He is saying that he was set apart from the time before he was born. That’s amazing. You know why that’s amazing? Because the detour between the setting apart and the Damascus road is horrendous, isn’t it? He’s a murderer. He’s a hater of Christians. He’s a persecutor of the church. That’s the man set apart for the gospel before he was born. Which means that right here in verse 1, we’re already smack up against Romans 11:33–26, the climax of the whole book:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

When you see something like that you put your hand on your mouth and think, “God, what were you up to? Was it that you lost control of Paul, as if you were wringing your hands and saying, ‘Oh no, what is becoming of the one I’ve set apart for the gospel?’ Or instead, were you loosening his leash and permitting this man, for holy purposes, to walk into being the chief sinner?” And Paul gives the answer to that in 1 Timothy 1:16, where he says:

But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

He did it for you this morning. For all you sinners who feel like you have done so much bad and it has been so long that nobody ever, especially God in his holiness, could forgive you. That’s why God let him go.

He did it so that when he chose him on the Damascus road, it would be plain to all that he was willing to choose somebody like that, who for perhaps 30 or 40 years hated what he stood for, and that it all came to a climax in Paul’s rage against his people, where he threw men and women in prison in Jerusalem and hated his name. That’s who God chose to spearhead the Gentile mission. Do you get it? Do you get Romans? Do you get the gospel? Verse 1 is about the gospel; it’s about mercy; it’s about sovereign, free grace.

Godward Focus

Well, we come to the end here of this verse and we see the phrase “set apart for the gospel of God.” He could have said “the gospel of Christ,” but instead he said the gospel of God. That’s what we’re going to talk about next week. I’m going to close with a quotation from Leon Morris. What we’ll be doing is putting commentaries in the bookstore that we think are worth your purchasing and getting so you can be studying along if you want to. This is a good one. Leon Morris in his exposition of verse 1, closed it like this, and I can’t think of a better way to draw things to a close now. He said:

God is the most important word in this epistle (about 160 times, roughly 10 times per chapter). Romans is a book about God. No topic is treated with anything like the frequency of God. Everything Paul touches in this letter he relates to God. In our concern to understand what the apostle is saying about righteousness and justification and the like, we ought not to overlook his tremendous concentration on God. There is nothing like it elsewhere.

That’s true. God set him apart before he was born. God did that. God permitted him to go his own way for a season. Then God, on the Damascus road, called him. I think this is why Paul says in Romans 5:6, “While we were yet ungodly, Christ died for us.” In the middle of that rebellion, between his being set apart and his being called, Christ died for him. He couldn’t get over that. Christ died for him, and in dying, bought him. And then he calls him and now the gospel of God is Paul’s life. So you see that God is at the bottom of his life, God is in the middle of his life, and God is at the top and goal of his life, which all sounds like Romans 11:36 — From him, and through him, and to him are all things in Paul’s life and your life. To him be glory forever and ever.

So here we are at the beginning of Romans and I believe God has chosen us as a church, called us as a church, and set us apart as a church for this very thing. And I would like you to pray with me that God would save sinners through the preaching through Romans, that he would build his church, and that he would glorify his name.