Paul began his great letter to the Romans by identifying himself not in terms of what he had accomplished, but in terms of God’s work in his life. He said in verse 1 that he was a slave of Christ Jesus, that is, Christ had bought him and now owns him and rules him (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). He now exists, as he says in verse 5, “for his name’s sake.” Then he said that he is called as an apostle. So again it is what Christ did to him, not what he did, that is first. He emphasizes this again in verse 5: “we received grace and apostleship.”
So the call of Paul to be an apostle was entirely gracious: it was free and undeserved. Christ took the initiative on the Damascus Road and broke into Paul’s life and laid hold on him when he was on his way to imprison Christians. Then at the end of verse 1, Paul says that he is “set apart for the gospel of God.” Again someone else, not Paul, acts to give Paul his mission and his identity. God does, as we saw, even before Paul is born (Galatians 1:15).
What God Alone Does
Paul’s grasp of the freedom and the sovereignty of grace is profoundly stamped by his own experience of it. He was, in his own estimation, the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And for some reason, not in himself, but only in the will of God, God chooses freely to set his saving focus on Paul and make him a Christian and an apostle and a servant of the gospel.
So, when he finally comes in verses 6–7 to describe his readers in Rome (and by implication, all Christians!), it is not surprising that he speaks with the same emphasis on what God has done, not what we have done. It’s not that what we do is unimportant, verse 5 says that the aim of Paul’s apostleship among the gentiles is the “obedience of faith.”
So what we do is utterly crucial: his whole ministry fails if it does not bring about the obedience of faith in our lives. (And not just our lives, but the lives of all the gentiles — or perhaps better, all the nations, or peoples. Oh may God continue to give us a burden for the nations, the unreached peoples of the earth! May he continue to raise up Paul-type missionaries among us!) But when he describes what it means to have a Christian identity in verses 6–7, Paul does not put the first emphasis on what we do. He puts it on what is done to us and for us, just as he did in describing his own identity as a slave and apostle and servant of the gospel.
Called and Loved — the Audacity of It
He uses two words that are massively important in this book of Romans and in the whole of Paul’s vision of God and salvation — so massive that I will deal with only one of them this morning. We need to ponder these words as the key to our own identity and what it means to be a Christian. The words are “called” and “ beloved.” Verse 6: “among whom [that is, the nations] you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“If God calls anyone, it is grace, free, and totally undeserved.”
Before I say another word about the meaning of these terms, I feel I must address the audacity of it all. We need to feel this, so that when others express it, we are not shaken. Here we are in a small room, compared to the whole city of Minneapolis. And in a small city compared to the whole United States. And our entire country is a mere 4% of the world’s population.
And huge things are happening in the world: the fourth largest country of the world, Indonesia, is near anarchy. India, the second largest country, is shaking her atomic weapons in the face of China, the largest county in the world. Israel and the Palestinians are on the razor’s edge of explosive strife. Numerous African countries are smoldering powder kegs of unrest.
And over against all this huge global reality, I stand here this morning, infinitely small by comparison, and say that the God who created the universe and holds all these countries and armies and weapons and systems in being is at work in the world, mainly calling individual persons to himself to be part of his people through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And you are among that number. And what God has done in loving you and calling you to Christ may have more eternal significance than who is the political leader of Indonesia or whether India has atomic weapons.
Now this seems utterly audacious. But if it seems audacious to us, imagine how it must have seemed to the early Christians. Here is the mammoth Roman Empire, plus the unknown hordes of “barbarians” beyond in every direction, and Paul is virtually unknown in this great empire. And the One he preaches has never been heard of before — Jesus. And he tells this little band of believers in the huge city of Rome that God has loved them and called them and made them, in particular, the focus of his saving work. They are the called of Christ and the beloved of God. In other words, in all this mammoth empire and world, God is dealing with them in a special way. The audacity of claiming this!
The Magnificence of the Lord of the Universe
This is, perhaps, why Paul inserted in verses 2–4 something about this gospel and something about this Christ. He is the fulfillment of the ancient promises to Israel that a ruler would come. And he was raised from the dead and ordained Son of God in power. So today, whether it looks like it or not, all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Christ. And unless we know that and believe that with all our hearts, we will be overwhelmed by the apparent bigness of all that happens in the world. In the absence of that truth, Christianity looks hopelessly insignificant and Christians look foolish.
So set your mind on the magnificence of Christ as the Lord of the universe, and on the power and wisdom of God the Father who created all this and plans all this and is managing all this, precisely for the building of his church — his people — by bringing about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.
Now back to these two key words: Paul describes the Roman Christians — and you and me — by focusing not mainly on what we do, but mainly on what he does: he says we are called and we are loved. That is what makes us Christians. That is what we should know about ourselves mainly. Other things are important to know. But nothing is more important that this.
First, in verse 6 he says we are “the called of Christ Jesus.” And then, in verse 7 he says we are “called as saints.” So at least twice in these two verses, he emphasizes that who we are as Christians is based on the work of another, the One who calls us.
God’s Call Is Not a Democratic Idea
This will not move us and fill us with the gratitude and wonder and worship that it should as long as we think the way typical American lovers of democracy think. Americans believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That’s probably not a bad idea for humans governing humans. But when it gets transferred to the way God governs the world, it is a very bad idea. It creates the impression that human rights and privileges are at the center of the universe, and that the only thing that should distinguish one person from another is his own effort or intelligence or courage. Otherwise we must all be treated equally and God must do for everyone what he does for anyone.
But what if the human heart is corrupt and hard and rebellious and blind and virtually dead to spiritual reality (Ephesians 4:18)? In that case, the only thing that self-reliance can produce is more death. And the only thing that can save us from our own corruption is a divine, supernatural, powerful, awakening call from God.
“The fact that anyone is called from darkness to light is a wonder of grace.”
If we say (in democratic fashion) that God must call everyone the same way he calls anyone, we do not yet understand how deeply sinful and rebellious and undeserving we are. If God calls anyone, it is grace — free, and totally undeserved. And he is not obliged to call everyone if he calls anyone, because he does not call any on the basis of human merit or human distinctives. Democracy proceeds on the basis of universal human rights; but rebellious, sinful humans have absolutely no rights in relation to God. All divine condemnation is just; all divine salvation is gracious. As Romans 9:15 says, “God has mercy on whom he will have mercy.” And the fact that anyone is called from darkness to light is a wonder of grace.
Now I am assuming several things here that I need to demonstrate from the Scriptures, namely, (1) that God is the one who calls; (2) that his saving call is a special act of grace in the lives of some sinners and not all; and (3) that this call is effective — it creates what it commands.
God Is the One Who Calls
When Paul says in verse 6, “you are the called of Jesus Christ,” he probably doesn’t mean “called by Christ Jesus.” He probably means, “called by God into the fellowship of Christ Jesus.” I say this because this is what he teaches elsewhere in Romans and his other letters. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:9 Paul says, “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” So God calls, and the aim of the call is to put us into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ. So in Romans 1:6, the phrase “the called of Jesus Christ” most likely means: “those who are called by God to belong to Jesus Christ and enjoy fellowship with him.”
His Call Is an Act of Grace Toward Some Sinners
Another thing that needs to be shown is that this call of God into the fellowship of Jesus is given to some, not all, and that no injustice is done here because none has a right to the call.
Look with me at Romans 8:28–30, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” Here we see clearly that not all are called. All things do not work together for good for everyone, but only for those who are called.
Then in verse 30 he says it again: “These whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified.” So again it is not everyone. The “call” of God, as Paul uses the term, is special and particular. Well, what is it then? Are we not to preach the gospel to everyone?
Indeed we are. Jesus scattered the seed of the word indiscriminately on every kind of soil (Mark 4:14). And Paul did exactly the same: he would come to a city and he would preach the gospel to the whole synagogue or the whole town square. He would “call” everyone to repent, without exception (Acts 17:30).
But that universal call of the gospel (see Matthew 22:14), which is the same as evangelism and missions, is not the call that Paul is talking about in Romans 1:6–7 and Romans 8:28, 30 (or Romans 9:24). Well, what is this call — this call into the fellowship of Jesus? What is the call that enables Paul to say, “Those whom he called he also justified”? God does not justify everyone. But he does justify all the “called.” What then is this “call?”
His Call Creates What It Commands
This brings us to the third thing that I was assuming and need to demonstrate, namely, that the saving call of God into the fellowship of his Son is effective, or effectual — it accomplishes what it calls for; it creates what it commands. The gospel is an offer to everyone that whoever sees the glory of Christ, and is drawn to him, and receives him in his beauty as his or her own precious portion in life, and trusts in this glorious Christ will be saved. Everyone who hears the gospel and believes, on the basis of this faith alone, will be justified and accepted by God.
But when that gospel is preached, what is the final answer to why some believe and some do not? Why did you believe? Listen to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24: “We preach Christ crucified [that is, we preach to everyone the glory of a loving, self-sacrificing Savior] to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul preaches indiscriminately to all — God means for every ethnic group to be reached with the gospel — “all the nations,” as Romans 1:5 says. As he preaches to all and offers salvation to all, most of the Jews regard a crucified Messiah as a stumbling block and reject him. And most of the gentiles regard a crucified Lord as foolishness, and they reject him. But in those two groups, among those who hear, out from them, some are called (a different “call” from the universal call to all). And the effect of their call is that this Christ no longer looks like a stumbling block, and no longer looks like foolishness, but rather he looks like the power and the wisdom of God. First Corinthians 1:24: “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Why? Because the effectual call awakens the dead, gives sight to the spiritually blind, opens the ears of the spiritually deaf, humbles the proud, softens the hard, and brings forth faith. This is why Paul says in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he calls, he justifies” — even though justification is by faith (Romans 5:1). The call of God takes away every proud obstacle to faith and makes Christ irresistibly attractive, so that willingly, freely we believe.
“Wake up, O Sleeper, Rise from the Dead”
Let’s close by looking at this miraculous process in action in 2 Corinthians 4:4–6. There Paul says, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Human rebellion and unbelief are intensified by the devil who hates truth and life. But if you can’t see “the glory of Christ” in the gospel because of rebellion, you won’t believe the gospel. It will seem like a stumbling block or foolishness.
“God does not justify everyone. But he does justify all the ‘called.’”
So what must happen? Preaching Christ and loving people must go on (verse 5): “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake.” That’s the universal gospel call (not the effectual divine call). But what will make the decisive difference in who is saved? It will be the divine supernatural call of God, just the same as in the beginning of the world when his call to the light created the light. Verse 6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ [in the same way] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
In other words, until God effectually calls us the way he called light into being at the creation, we will not see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the gospel.” And if we don’t see it, we will not love the light and come to the light (John 3:19–20). But if we do see it, we will come. Christ will no longer be a stumbling block or foolishness. He will be to us “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And we will come to him and cleave to him and love him and trust him.
That is what Paul means in Romans 1:6 when he says, “You Romans are the called of Jesus Christ.” God has said in your hearts, “Let there be light,” and you have seen his glory and come to him and called on him, and he has saved you, and forgiven you and accepted you and poured out his love in your hearts. That is what has happened to you, Christian. Learn who you are. Learn how to thank your God, and live in the humble wonder of grace.
And say with me to every unbeliever, on behalf of Christ, and in the power of his Spirit: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14).