Focus with me for a few moments on Romans 1:14: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” More literally, “I am debtor . . .” (KJV). What is his debt? The next verse probably gives the answer (verse 15): “So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” So the debt seems to be preaching the gospel. That’s his obligation or his debt.
Now the reason I think it’s important to focus on the word “debtor” in verse 14 (“I am debtor to Greeks and to barbarians”) is that it makes us ponder how you get into such a debt and how you pay it off.
It may be that you would say, “Well, verse 1 shows that Paul was ‘called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,’ and verse 5 says that Paul ‘received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles’ so what could be clearer?” He is obligated as a called apostle to preach the gospel to the Gentiles to bring about the obedience of faith. It’s an obligation created by the command of the risen Christ. You are obligated to do what you are told to do by your Lord.
That’s true. But what Paul stresses about his calling is not that it is a command, but that it is grace. Verse 5: “we received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith.” So I think it is helpful to ask if there is something deeper to see here than just: Christ said it, so do it: that’s your obligation, your debt.
By Borrowing or Stealing
Note carefully: verse 14 says Paul is a debtor to other people, not God. “I am debtor to the Greeks and to the barbarians.” Usually, we get into debt because someone has loaned us something. But the Greeks and Barbarians have not loaned Paul anything. The situation is not that the nations have loaned Paul anything to be paid back. The situation is that God has freely given Paul something, namely, grace (verse 5: “we received grace”) — both the grace of salvation and the grace of apostleship. But when you receive grace from God, you don’t become a debtor to God. Grace cannot and must not be paid back as a debt. Otherwise, grace would no longer be grace. If I give you a free gift and you try to pay me for it, you turn it into a merited purchase, not a free gift. So grace does not create debt in this sense.
“Grace is precious beyond words. It is our only hope as sinners.”
In fact, the best thing about grace is that it pays debts. We are debtors to God (“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” [Matthew 6:12]). God’s grace forgives debts. We are debtors to God not because he has given us grace, but because we have stolen his glory. Stealing also makes you a debtor. Instead of seeing the glory of God as a treasure to enjoy, we exchanged it for other things that we really like better (Romans 1:23; 3:23). And so we stole it. That is the essence of sin. And that is the kind of debt we have toward God.
So when grace comes to us from God in the gospel, it comes to pay our debts that we have to him. Grace does not make you a debtor to God, but it does make you a debtor to others who need grace just as you did. That is what Paul focuses on here in verse 14. “I received grace and apostleship” (verse 5). So now I am a debtor to Greeks and barbarians. And what I owe them is the gospel of grace. That’s my debt.
The Debt We Owe Is the Gospel of Grace
Why is that? Answer: When you hear good news about how to escape from a common misery, you become a debtor to tell the good news to others so they can escape the misery too. You owe it to them. Why? Because if you withhold the good news of grace from others, as if you were qualified for it, and they were not, then you show that you have never known grace. The grace of God which calls us (verse 6) out of our darkness and bestows eternal covenant-love on us (verse 7) creates what it commands. We don’t qualify for it beforehand.
So if you hold this grace back from others as if you are qualified and they are not, you default on your debt to the world and prove that you have not really known grace. Grace is precious beyond words. It is our only hope as sinners. We don’t deserve it from God. And no one can deserve it from us. When it comes to us freely, we are debtors to give freely.
That’s one reason why Paul stresses his debt, in verse 14, “both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Culture and intelligence and education do not qualify you for the gospel of grace. And being unrefined and uneducated and illiterate do not disqualify you for the gospel of grace. There are no qualifications for this grace.
Nobody Qualifies for Grace
Paul is not a debtor to anybody because they qualify. Nobody qualifies for grace. For then grace would not be grace. Paul is a debtor to Greek and barbarian precisely because he didn’t qualify either, yet grace came to him — and it keeps on coming to him day after day in endless waves of future grace breaking over his life (1 Corinthians 15:10). So there is no one who is any less or more deserving than he. And that makes him a debtor to all.
Oh, to be gripped by the reality of radically free grace in our lives — past and future! What a difference it would make! Dwell on this today, would you? Ponder what it means about racism, ethnic slurs, and all kinds of self-righteousness, demandingness in marriage. Ponder what it means about how freely you share the gospel of grace. O, Lord, open our hearts more and more to feel the wonder of being called of Christ and the loved of God (forever!) — not because he found something special in us, but because this grace is utterly and absolutely free.
Now stop and think here for a moment what I just did.
Preaching the Gospel of Grace to Believers
I just took the gospel of grace — the good news that because of Jesus’s death on the cross for sinners and his resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1–4), free grace breaks on us with wave after wave — and I applied it to you with the conviction that if you get it — really get it — that is, if you believe it, if you have faith in it, if you cherish this grace and live on this grace, it will make an ever-greater difference in your life in areas like racism and pride and self-righteousness and marriage.
To put it in a word, I just preached to you the gospel of grace. And my aim in this was the “obedience of faith” — the humility and kindness and courage and patience and love that come from faith in God’s grace. Now, why is that important to notice?
Consider verse 15 and see if this is not what Paul wants to do in Rome. He says in verse 14 that he is a debtor to every layer of gentile society, and then he says, “So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” He is eager to preach the gospel to believers in Rome.
“The gospel of grace both converts and the gospel of grace sanctifies.”
We don’t usually think about preaching the gospel to believers. We preach the gospel to unbelievers. But I just preached the gospel to believers. So I hope you can see that this is not strange for Paul to say in verse 15 — that he wants to do this in Rome. Paul’s aim, according to verse 5, is to bring about the obedience of faith among Gentiles. So is mine at Bethlehem. How does this obedience come about? It comes about through faith — faith in the free grace of God through Christ. That’s why it is called the “obedience of faith.” But how does that kind of faith come about? It comes about through the gospel. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word [the gospel] of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Our faith begins with the gospel of grace, and our Christian lives are sustained by this same good news of grace over and over again.
To Bring About the Obedience of Faith
Look at Romans 15:15–16:
But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
What Paul says here is that he is not merely interested in getting professions of faith by first-time preaching of the gospel (as crucial as that is). He is interested in bringing to God the offering of sanctified Gentiles — that is, he wants to bring about the “obedience of faith” in the Gentiles (Romans 1:5). And the way he works toward this end (according to Romans 15:16) is by “ministering the gospel of God,” applying the gospel of God’s grace. It’s the gospel of grace that converts and it’s the gospel of grace that sanctifies. We must tell people the gospel the first time; and we must “remind” people again and again of the meaning and implications of the gospel of free grace (Romans 15:15).
So the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24) is what we preach to unbelievers, and the gospel of grace is what we preach to believers. That is what Paul says in Romans 1:15, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you [believers!] also who are in Rome.” Not to get them saved, but to keep them saved through sanctification. Our faith feeds off the good news of the grace of God. And our obedience feeds off of faith. Therefore, to bring about the obedience of faith, we must hear the gospel of grace again and again.
So we have seen two things so far. (1) Paul is a debtor to Greeks and to barbarians because he has so freely received the grace of God in the gospel and in his apostleship. If he doesn’t pay his debt he is treating the gospel as if he qualified for it and they don’t, which means he is denying that it is a gospel of grace. (2) This gospel of grace is to be preached to believer and unbeliever alike because faith in free grace saves and faith in free grace sanctifies. The good news of free grace brings about faith and faith brings about obedience — all for the sake of the glory of God (Romans 1:5). Because the giver of grace gets the glory.
Is the Preacher the Only One Speaking the Gospel of Grace?
One last question: “Is it enough for the church that preachers preach the gospel of grace?” Will the obedience of faith flourish the way it should at Bethlehem if John Piper is the only one speaking the gospel of grace?
I think this is the question behind verses 11–12, “For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established [namely, in your faith and the obedience of faith]; that is, that I may be encouraged [in my faith] together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
What’s he saying? He is saying: Yes, I am coming with the gospel of the grace of God. By faith, I stand in that grace, and I live from its power. I will, by faith, share that grace with you through my spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching, and perhaps, other gifts. But know this, you stand in that same grace. And you too live from its power. And you too have spiritual gifts — all of you. Therefore, share God’s grace with me and with each other so that we are all mutually encouraged and established in faith; and so that the obedience of faith will flourish in the church and in the world.
In other words, the answer is No, one man’s preaching the gospel of the grace of God in the church is not enough to bring about the full measure of the obedience of faith. This is why we put such a high premium on small groups at Bethlehem. Here is one of the main places where verses 11 and 12 will happen. God’s design for bringing about the obedience of faith in the church (= love) is that all believers cherish the grace of God and share it with each other through spiritual gifts. Thus Paul says in Romans 12:6–8,
“Our faith feeds off the good news of the grace of God. And our obedience feeds off of faith.”
Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Spiritual gifts are differing forms of grace given to the church for the building up of the body for the obedience of faith for the sake of the Name.
As Each One Has Received a Gift, Employ it
Peter put it like this in 1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” The grace of God comes to the church in manifold forms and ways — as many forms as there are people. And the use of that grace to bring about the obedience of faith is what spiritual gifts are.
So it isn’t surprising that at the very beginning of this greatest of all letters — this great theological masterpiece — Paul would call us to think and pray about spiritual gifts and how all of us are debtors to the wise and to the foolish because of God’s grace, not just outside the church toward unbelievers, but inside the church to each other. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another” (Romans 13:8).
So here is the sum of the matter: Grace came to us absolutely free and unconditional from God when he called us to himself and loved us as his own (Romans 1:6–7). This grace makes us debtors to everyone who, like us, needs grace, because not to share the grace we received would imply that we qualified for it and they don’t, and that would nullify grace. And what we share is the gospel of this great free grace. This is how we pay our debt to others: freely we received; freely we give. And one of the ways we share the good news of God’s grace is through spiritual gifts. Oh, how important is the body life of the church in small groups where people understand that every member is a steward of grace to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of the Name.