The Treasure of Faith in the Life of the Church
The aim of this greatest of all letters is the same as the aim of the man who wrote it — or the aim of God for the man who wrote it. It’s a wonderful thing when the aim of our ministry is the same as the aim of our life. I count it an indescribable privilege and gift from God that the aim of my life and the aim of this church whom I serve are the same. “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.” That’s our church mission, and that is my life calling. I am so thankful that they are the same.
That’s the way it is with Paul. We see this worked out in this paragraph, Romans 1:8–15. To see it, back up with me to verse 5. There Paul states God’s aim for his life: “Through whom [that is, Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake.” Paul would state his life mission like this: “I exist (by the grace of God) to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles (or peoples) for the sake of the glory of the name of Christ.”
Now if that’s his life mission — to glorify the name of Christ by bringing about the obedience of faith among the nations — then we would expect that this would also be the aim of his greatest of all letters, the letter to the Romans. And that is what we see in verses 8–15. We see Paul making a case to the Romans that even though he has not yet come to visit them, he has been and is now utterly devoted to building the obedience of faith in their lives and fulfilling his mission in their lives.
Paul’s Devotion to Fulfilling His Mission
He does this in three steps. The first is in verse 8 in the way he thanks God for them. The second is in verses 9–12 in the way he calls God to witness to his longings on their behalf. And the third is in verse 13 in the reason he has often planned to come to them.
1. He Thanks God
So what is the first way that Paul shows he is utterly devoted to bringing about the obedience of faith for the glory of God as it applies to the church in Rome? The first way is how he thanks God for them in verse 8. He says, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Notice four things in this verse of thanks.
First, Paul tells them he is thankful to God for them: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all.” Faith doesn’t exist in the abstract. Paul’s life goal of bringing about the obedience of faith is a goal to bring about a certain kind of person. Persons have faith. Persons obey God out of faith. Faith is not a commodity Paul amasses. Faith is the fruit of a kind of person, a kind of heart. Whenever we speak of “the advancement and joy of faith” (Philippians 1:25) we mean people growing in faith and joy.
Second, notice that what he thanks God for in these persons is their robust faith: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” What makes him glad about the people is that they have faith. This is how verse 8 shows Paul is devoted to his life mission in relation to the Roman believers. He was not there to bring about the obedience of faith among them, but he can do the next best things from a distance: he can be thrilled by it and give thanks to God for it. That is Paul’s way of signaling to them that he is behind them and committed to what God is doing in their lives in building faith.
Third, notice that the faith they have has somehow become visible, knowable faith: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Now faith is invisible. It is an act of the heart (Romans 10:9). How can something invisible have such a broad reputation?
“It’s a wonderful thing when the aim of our ministry is the same as the aim of our life.”
The answer is that faith produces something visible, namely, the obedience of faith. You know the tree by its fruit. And this especially is why Paul is so thankful — because his life mission is not just to produce invisible acts of the heart called faith; his aim (according to verse 5) is to “bring about the obedience of faith among the nations.” Something had become visible and knowable in Rome and the reputation was spreading everywhere. This was not a merely private thing.
Fourth, notice that Paul thanks God for the persons who believe and bear the fruit of obedience: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you.” He is not thanking the Romans for becoming believers and bearing fruit in visible obedience. He is thanking God. How does that relate to his mission statement in verse 5?
It relates like this: the mission statement said that Paul exists to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles “for the sake of the name.” In other words, the ultimate aim of Paul’s calling is not faith, but the glory of the name of Christ — the glory of God (see Philippians 1:11; 2:11; 1 Peter 4:11). Faith glorifies God in two ways, at least. One is implied here, namely, faith is the gift of God. The Giver — the Creator — gets the glory.
That is why Paul thanks God for these people. They became who they are because of God’s grace. They became the believers they are because of God’s work in their lives. If you want to see this confirmed, look at Romans 6:17: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart.”
Thanks be to God — not to you, but to God. For what? That you became obedient even though you were slaves of sin? How did you ever get free from bondage to sin and from the heart freely produce the “obedience” of faith? Answer: God. This is what Paul means in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
You can’t boast that you are a believer. You can only thank. That is what Paul does here. And in doing it, he gives all the credit and all the glory to God — and that’s the connection to Paul’s life mission in verse 5 — he exists to bring about the obedience of faith “for the sake of the name.” That name he exalts and glorifies in verse 8 by thanking God for the people who have the kind of faith that produces obedience that is known throughout the world.
Surely we should learn from this that the great aim of our ministry should be the same as Paul’s — to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Christ’s name and God’s glory. I said a moment ago that faith glorifies God in at least two ways. One we saw here: namely, that God is the Giver and the Giver gets the glory. The other is that faith by its nature depends on God and calls attention to his trustworthiness.
You can see this worked out in chapter 4, especially verses 20–21: “With respect to the promise of God, [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, he was able also to perform.” When you trust God’s promise in the face of great adversity, you glorify God’s dependability and truthfulness.
So, if we are committed at Bethlehem to spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, we must be committed to bringing about the obedience of faith in all things, because faith glorifies God by coming from him as the Giver and by showing his dependability and truthfulness.
2. He Calls God to Witness His Longings on Their Behalf
Now, what is the second way that Paul shows he is utterly devoted to bringing about the obedience of faith for the glory of God as it applies to the church in Rome? The first way was in how he thanks God for them. The second way is how he calls God to witness to his longings on their behalf in verses 9–12:
For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of his Son [literally: whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son], is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.
My understanding of verse 9 is that Paul is calling God to witness because he is referring to something that only God can see, namely something “in Paul’s spirit.” He is saying, “in my spirit” I serve the gospel. I don’t think this means “with all my heart” (NIV), nor that my spirit is really in the preaching of the gospel (NASB). I think he means that he serves the gospel in his praying, where no one can see but God. And so all he can do to insist on this truth is to call on God to be his witness, because no one can see the ceaseless heart-cry of the apostle but God. “God, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, is my witness how unceasingly I make mention of you in prayer.”
“You can’t boast that you are a believer. You can only thank.”
But the question is: How does he serve God in his prayers? His answer (in verse 9) is that he makes mention of the Roman believers constantly: “unceasingly I make mention of you.” But what does he say when he makes mention of them? That is the key question. He answers in verse 10: “always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.” What he does over and over in his prayers is mention them with longing and with the request that God would see fit in his sovereignty — notice the phrase, “by the will of God” — to bring Paul to Rome. But why? That is the key question: Why does Paul want to come to Rome?
Paul’s answer brings us exactly to the point we would expect in view of his life mission in verse 5. He says in verse 11 that the reason he wants to come to Rome is this: “I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established.” Now, what does he mean, “that they may be established”? He means that their faith may be strengthened and made even more firm and fruitful. (This is the connection, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 3:2.)
So what we see is that the way Paul serves God in his spirit in the gospel (verse 9) is by praying continually that he would be able to go to Rome and strengthen their faith. Which is what Paul’s life mission in verse 5 is all about — to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles. For obedience to come from faith, faith must be growing and strong. So Paul serves God, that is, he seeks to glorify God by asking for God’s help (which is what prayer is!) to get him to Rome for the sake of their faith. Bringing about the obedience of faith is still the issue. And the name of God is magnified by Paul’s reliance on God in prayer to make it happen.
But that is not quite the way Paul wants to say it. He backs up, as it were, in verse 12, and makes clear that his longing as he prays is not just for them to be strengthened and encouraged in their faith by Paul’s faith and spiritual gifts for them, but also that he himself would be strengthened and encouraged by their faith. Verse 12: “That is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” That is Paul’s life mission: to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles. This is how he serves God in his spirit: he prays constantly that God would enable him to go and strengthen them in faith and be strengthened by them in his faith.
3. He Wants the Fruit of Faith from Them
The third way that Paul shows his commitment to his life mission of bringing about the obedience of faith is in verse 13, namely, the reason he has often planned to come to them. “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.”
What fruit? Surely, the answer is the same fruit he has been talking about all along: the fruit of faith — “the obedience of faith.” This is the way he uses the term “fruit” in Romans 6:22, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit [literally, you have your fruit], resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”
Ways Paul Demonstrates His Life Mission
So in three ways, Paul emphasizes that he is utterly committed to his life mission among the Roman Christians. His life mission is to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of God’s glory (verse 5). He emphasizes this in verse 8 by thanking God for them because their faith is vital and visible with obedience so that the reputation of it has spread everywhere. And the name of God is exalted here because he is the one being thanked for the treasure of faith.
“For obedience to come from faith, faith must be growing and strong.”
He emphasizes it in verse 9–12 by calling God to witness what no one else can see, namely, Paul’s inner service to God in the gospel as he prays continually that God would bring Paul to Rome for the sake of strengthening their faith and for his to be strengthened. Here again, the aim is strong faith, and God will get the glory because Paul is depending on God to get him there and to give the spiritual gifts that will build the faith.
Finally, Paul emphasizes his mission to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of God’s glory by saying in verse 13 that the reason he has planned to go to Rome for so long was “to have fruit” among them, as among the rest of the Gentiles. Which I take to mean again the fruit of faith – “the obedience of faith.”
The lesson for us in this is manifest: if we are committed to the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, let us be committed to bringing about the obedience of faith in each other and among the peoples of our neighborhood and the nations.