The Author of the Greatest Letter Ever Written

First in a Series of Messages on Romans

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

For almost eighteen years of preaching here at Bethlehem, I have waited and waited for the time when it would seem most fitting to preach through Paul’s letter to the Romans. I have considered it again and again, and backed off from the task — like a mountain climber gazing up into the clouds around the peak of Mount Everest and then turning to lower heights. It has felt very daunting.

But in God’s patience and grace, I have felt in recent months that now is the time. We are coming to the end of a millennium. And I am well into the second half of my thirty-year pastorate of this wonderful church — if God wills. The pace of time feels quicker now at age 52 than it did when I came at age 34. And “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4) seems more glorious to me now than it ever has. And there is no greater exposition of the gospel of God than the book of Romans.

I am not as moved now as I used to be by the tyranny of the urgent and by the need to respond to every trendy view that blows across the cultural sea in America. Well past midlife, I have a deep confidence that the best way to be lastingly relevant is to stand on rock-solid, durable, old truths, rather than jumping from one pragmatic bandwagon to another. Romans is as solid and durable and reliable and unshakable and thorough as the truth can get.

My History with Romans

I have a personal history with the book of Romans that might stir up some of you to join me in the quest to meet God and know him and worship him and enjoy him and obey him as he meets us in the book of Romans.


I don’t remember being converted at age six at my mother’s side in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (as my father reminds me). I only remember believing. But I do remember learning the meaning of my conversion — and I learned it from the book of Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23); and “the wages of sin is death” (6:23); and “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8); and “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). Which of us, who has tasted the goodness and glory of God in this great gospel, does not count the book of Romans precious beyond reckoning?

Call to Ministry of the Word

“Romans is as solid and durable and reliable and unshakable and thorough as the truth can get.”

I went to college thinking that maybe I would be a doctor or a veterinarian. Then in the summer of 1966, between my sophomore and junior years, my whole life direction changed, in the painful and precious providence of God. He called me to the ministry of the word. That fall I had signed up to live with three friends in a dormitory suite. But midway through the year I knew I needed more solitude to study and pray the way I felt driven to study. For the next year and a half I lived alone in the single room of another dorm. And there I remember — I can see it and almost smell it — reading John Stott’s little yellow book on Romans 5–8 called Men Made New. The effect on me was to seal the calling to be a faithful minister of God’s word. So Romans confirmed my conversion, and Romans confirmed my call to the ministry of the word.

Theological Shaping

Then came seminary in 1968–1971, with all the overwhelming discoveries of the sovereignty of God. And under God the source from which all that new light was streaming was the book of Romans: first a course on Romans 1–8 and then a climactic course on the unity of the Bible built around Romans 9–11.

These were the days of decisive theological shaping in my life. Everything I have thought since is rooted there. So my conversion, my call to the ministry of the word, and the decisive shaping of my vision of God was sealed by the book of Romans.

Call to the Pastorate

Then, after three years of study in Germany and six years of teaching at Bethel, Romans again became the decisive agent of God in my leaving teaching to become a pastor at this church in 1980. I had been working on Romans 9 for years, trying to understand the awesome picture of God in that chapter. In the fall of 1979, I was given a sabbatical and resolved to settle the matter, as best I could, and write a book about it. As I immersed myself in Romans 9 day after day, something utterly unexpected happened. The word I kept hearing for me personally was, “I, the God of Romans 9, will be heralded, and not just analyzed or explained.”

On October 14, 1979, late at night after Noël had already gone to bed, God did the decisive work of calling me from teaching in college to preaching in the church. This was in the midst of writing The Justification of God, an exposition of Romans 9. The journal entry begins,

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

Within weeks, a call came from Bethlehem that set in motion the events that brought me to this church and this pulpit. So again, it was Romans that seemed to be the hinge on which the door of my life swung.

Sustaining the Ministry

And though I have never preached through Romans, it has been the great truths of Romans 8:28 and 8:32 that have sustained the ministry here these eighteen years. And I can say with John Stott that I have heralded the final triumphant verses of Romans 8 at innumerable funerals and “never lost the thrill of them” (Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 10).

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

Unmatched Influence

So I have a personal history with this book. And so do many, many people. I will be telling you some of their stories in the weeks — and years — to come (for instance, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Karl Barth, and some of you in this congregation). For now, suffice it to say that Samuel Coleridge, speaking for many, said, “I think that the Epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence” (Table Talk, 232). And John Knox (not the Scot) said that it is “unquestionably the most important theological work ever written” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 9, 355).

How did this happen? How did it come about that the most important theological, Christian work ever written came from a former Jewish Pharisee who hated Christianity (Acts 9:1), and helped kill the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58; 8:1), and persecuted the early church with passion (1 Timothy 1:13)? How did it happen that this man wrote a 22-page, 7,100-word letter that “century after century . . . has been the flame at which one great Christian leader after another . . . has kindled his own torch to the revival of the church and the enrichment of Christendom” (Introducing the New Testament, 94)?

The answer begins in Romans 1:1, in the first three phrases of the book, “Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” Take them one at a time and ponder what they mean about this man and his letter and his God. In all three phrases, the crucial thing is not who Paul is, but whose Paul is. And this will, in the end, be what makes your life significant or not — not who you are, but whose you are.

‘A Bondservant of Christ Jesus’

First, Paul, the writer of this letter, says he is “a bondservant of Christ Jesus.” We are confronted immediately with a choice: is this man a deluded maniac? Jesus, called Christ, was killed in about AD 30 by a Roman governor named Pilate. We have several secular, historical testimonies to that fact. He was dead. Now, here is Paul saying that this man, Christ Jesus, is not dead, but is his Master, and that he is the man’s slave. Are these sixteen chapters the rantings of a delusion? You must decide.

Paul’s own testimony is not that he is deluded, but that he is bought and owned and ruled by his own contemporary, who died and rose from the dead — Christ Jesus. I say “bought and owned,” because that’s what being a bondservant implies. In 1 Corinthians 7:23, Paul says, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” In other words, Christians are slaves of Christ because he bought us by dying for us, and therefore he owns us. “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Paul is the bondservant of Christ Jesus because Christ bought him and owns him.

“I, the God of Romans 9, will be heralded, and not just analyzed or explained.”

It also means that this living Christ rules him. In Galatians 1:10, Paul says, “Am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.” In other words, being a bondservant of Christ means utter submission to what pleases him, not what pleases anybody else.

So Paul’s self-understanding is that he is bought and owned and ruled by Christ Jesus — a man who was killed as a criminal perhaps 25 years before this letter was written, and who, Paul will say in verse 4, was raised from the dead and is the absolutely unique Son of God in power. In other words, here in this history-making letter we are not dealing with a man and his genius. We are dealing with a man and his Owner and Ruler and God. This begins to explain why the letter is no ordinary letter.

‘Called as an Apostle’

Second, Paul says that he is not only “a bondservant of Christ Jesus, [but also] called as an apostle.” He is not only bought and owned and ruled; he is also called. Paul’s significance is not first or primarily what he has done, but what has been done to him — he has been bought and owned, he has been called, and he has been set apart. Someone else is the Primary Actor here, not Paul. We are not dealing in this letter merely with the work of a man, but with the work of God in a man.

In Paul’s mind, to be an apostle was to be a person who had seen Jesus Christ risen from the dead so that he could give firsthand testimony, and who had been commissioned and authorized by Christ to represent him and speak for him and provide a foundation for his church through true and authoritative teaching. Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus road. And there Jesus called him into his apostolic ministry.

He says in 1 Corinthians 15:7–8, “[Jesus] appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.” There Jesus said to him, “For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you” (Acts 26:16). With this commission, he became one of the founders of Christianity — as it says in Ephesians 2:20, the church has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

If we ask today where the foundation of the apostles is for the church and its life and ministry, the answer is: in the deposit of writings that they left behind. And among all those apostolic writings there is none like the letter to the Romans. It is simply the great biblical summary of the great gospel and is therefore preeminently the foundation of the church, with Christ as the cornerstone. Paul says that he is “called as an apostle” so that the church — so that we — will receive the book of Romans as the message not just of a man, but of Christ. Romans is not great because it is the word of a genius, but because it is the word of God (see 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Corinthians 2:13). That’s the significance of being called as an apostle.

‘Set Apart for the Gospel of God’

Finally, Paul says that he is not only “a bondservant of Christ Jesus, [and not only] called as an apostle, [but he was also] set apart for the gospel of God.”

When did that happen — being “set apart for the gospel of God”? Galatians 1:15 says, “God . . . set me apart even from my mother’s womb.” This means that before Paul was bought as a slave, and before he was called on the Damascus road, and before he was born, God set him apart for the gospel of God. Which means that God did not look around for a person to fill the apostolic role; he prepared Paul from his mother’s womb to serve the gospel — which is an astonishing thing when you realize the pathway that led from the womb to the Damascus road; namely, Paul’s unbelief and persecution of the church.

“God is at the bottom and God is at the top and God is in the middle.”

Which means that in the very first verse of this great book we taste some of the magnitude of God’s inscrutable wisdom which Paul worships in 11:33–36 (“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable His ways!”). God did not leave anything to chance in the founding of his church through the writing of his apostles: He set Paul apart before birth; he purchased him by the death of his Son; he called him effectively on the Damascus road.

Romans Is About God

So verse 1 may look like it is about the author of the letter; but behind every phrase is Someone far greater. God bought Paul by the death of his Son, God called him to be an apostle (Galatians 1:15; 1 Corinthians 1:1), God set him apart from before he was born. And he did it all, “for the gospel of God” — which we will look at next week. In other words, even in the first verse we hear Romans 11:36, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.” Leon Morris is exactly right when he says,

God is the most important word in this epistle. 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, justification, and the like we ought not to overlook his tremendous concentration on God. There is nothing like it elsewhere.” (The Epistle to the Romans, 40)

Indeed there isn’t. This is why the epistle has had the effect it has. It is from God and through God and to God. God chose the author before he was born. God purchased his freedom by the death of his Son. God called him to be an apostle. And then God gave him a gospel — the gospel of God himself. So God is at the bottom and God is at the top and God is in the middle.

And since we are dedicated as a church to spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, it is, I believe, time to meet God in the book of Romans. I believe God has chosen us, called us, and set us apart for this very thing. Pray with me that his word would run and triumph in the salvation of many and the building up of his church to the glory of his name.