Have you ever considered how powerful letters are? A letter can change lives. It can even change world history.
A decade into the 19th Century, Adoniram Judson would persuade Ann Hasseltine’s father to give his daughter to him in marriage—with a letter. If you’ve never read it, it is well worth your read. With Ann, Judson later set sail for Burma as the first foreign missionary from America. God used Judson to establish a gospel witness in Burma that remains to this day. And through his work a Baptist Missionary Society was formed that has inspired Baptist missions efforts for centuries, and the planting of local churches on every habitable continent.
In 1790, Edmund Burke wrote a letter hundreds of pages long to a gentleman in France, critiquing the French Revolution. Burke’s writing, known as Reflections on the Revolution in France, has done much to shape conservative political philosophy today.
On July 4, 1776, a letter was sent by the 13 colonies to King George III in Britain officially declaring their independence, establishing the colonies as these United States of America, the most influential geopolitical body of the last 2 centuries.
Well, as much as I enjoy reading these letters, let’s give our attention here to the most influential letter ever written,
a letter that more clearly articulates the most important truths you could ever hear than any other piece of writing,
a letter that will be celebrated into eternity,
a letter whose contents are critical for you to grasp, so critical that your eternal destiny depends on it,
a letter which demonstrates a better knowledge of you than even you possess,
a letter containing truths for which its author, many of its original recipients, and Christians down the ages have been led to the slaughter.
God used this letter to save the likes of Augustine in Africa and Martin Luther in Germany.
The truths of this letter are the truths by which every Christian has been saved.
If you find yourself reading this and you are not a Christian, it is my prayer that the truth of this letter will be clear to you, that God would give you the sweet gift of faith in this truth, and that your whole life would be changed.
What letter am I talking about?
Romans was written in the second half of the 50s AD by the Apostle Paul. Paul was ethnically Jewish and a religious scholar. When Christianity began, Paul, at that time named Saul, was one of many who considered Christianity heresy—that is, to be a fundamental lie about God. He actively promoted the imprisonment and killing of members of the churches in and around Jerusalem.
But then, on a day recorded for us in Acts 9, something happened. The man he thought to be in a grave outside Jerusalem stopped him suddenly in the road on his way to the city of Damascus, actually knocking him to the ground and blinding him in the brilliance of his glory. Paul, having been going to Damascus to persecute Christians, while knocked to the ground, heard this man who was supposed to be buried in the ground ask him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus…get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” Just three days later, a Christian man named Ananias, one of the men for whom Saul had been coming to put in prison, himself came to Saul, that he might regain his sight, receive the Holy Spirit, and be baptized.
Upon being baptized, this persecutor of Christians, this Jew who had been convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a mere man, a blasphemer deserving of death, who got what he deserved and was in the grave, immediately began to proclaim the name of Jesus to other Jews in their meeting places, declaring that Jesus was more than a mere man, he was in fact God himself and was alive!
Upon his conversion Jesus set Paul apart to be an apostle, one who had witnessed the bodily resurrected Lord, who would authoritatively preach the gospel and establish local churches with God’s very Word, making clear for the early churches what Jesus called them to believe and how he called them to live.
While most of Paul’s letters were written to local churches he himself had established, his letter to those loved by God in Rome is unique in that he had not yet visited them personally. On his third major missionary journey, he wrote them in hopes of visiting them and receiving support from them on his way to preach the gospel in Spain, after delivering a gift to the church in Jerusalem. It seems that he also intended his clear statement of the gospel to provide the necessary truth in which both believing Jews and Gentiles could find lasting unity.
Just to orient you before I focus in on particular verses, Paul begins his letters with formal greetings, where we learn that he is the sender and to whom he is writing. As you read through the New Testament on your own, don’t rush through these greetings to get to the “good stuff”. In Paul’s greetings, you’ll generally find a preview of what the letter will be about or will emphasize. And they are wonderfully, theologically rich. Paul’s greeting in Romans, found in verses 1-7, is the richest of them all.
Next you’ll find Paul’s introduction to the letter in verses 8-17. I will spend the bulk of this space considering what he says in verses 15-17, for in them he articulates for us the thesis of his letter. The rest of the body of Paul’s letter expounds on these verses.
There is a primary exhortation for us today from Romans 1:15-17. Everything else I write here will under-gird this exhortation. It will provide the basis for why I exhort you as I do.
Christian reader, like Paul, be eager to preach the gospel.
Submit to a local church in membership where the gospel is preached every Sunday. Eagerly preach it to your fellow church members. Eagerly tell the multitude of people around you the good news of Jesus Christ. Be eager to see this gospel preached to all nations.
Be eager to preach the gospel.
Here is the passage:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
My main exhortation for you comes from verse 15. “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Paul was eager. I am eager to preach the gospel to you. And now I call you to like eagerness.
Now, what is true about the gospel that ought to lead us to zeal, to readiness, to eagerness, in its preaching to any who has an ear to hear?
There are four truths about the gospel that Paul highlights as grounds for his exhortation.
1. The gospel is from God.
2. The gospel is the power of God for salvation.
3. The gospel is reveals to us the righteousness of God.
4. The gospel can only be received by faith.
1. The gospel is from God.
Consider verse 1.
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…”
I am eager to preach the gospel because I know that I preach good news that I haven’t just thought up. No human philosopher, no mighty emperor, and no simpleton like myself made this news up. Its source is Divine. It is God’s message and for the glory of his Son, who was promised beforehand, raised bodily in power from the grave after three days, and will receive the obedience of faith, true worship, from a people from all nations.
The gospel is from God.
2. The gospel is the power of God for salvation.
Consider verse 16.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
This reality will be unpacked more in a moment, but the truth about you and I is that we, and all humans everywhere, need salvation. In fact, it is our greatest need. We have all sinned against the Holy God who made us, and need to be saved from him, by him, for him. And it is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation for sinners who would believe.
What kind of power is the gospel?
a. The gospel is an incomparable power. This is quite evident as one reads the rest of this most glorious letter.
What power but the gospel can take enemies of God and make them his friends, as we see in Romans 5:10?
What power but the gospel can turn the idolaters of Romans 1:25 into right worshipers?
What power but the gospel can cause guilty sinners to be declared righteous, as we see in Romans 8:1-4?
What power but the gospel can secure forgiveness for the insolent, Romans 4:7?
What power but the gospel can replace a spirit of fear and timidity with a Spirit of adoption as sons of God, Romans 8:15?
What power but the gospel can conform the proud into the image of Christ, Romans 8:29?
What power but the gospel can join the wretched to the person of Christ, Romans 6:3-5?
What power but the gospel can carry broken saints all the way home to glory, Romans 8:30?
The gospel is incomparable.
b. The gospel is an unstoppable power.
There is no person, place, or thing that can stop the gospel from accomplishing God’s purpose of salvation. Jesus the Son of God rose in power from the grave. It is this Jesus who has all authority everywhere. And it is this Jesus who sends his people with his gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation on this planet to preach (Matthew 28:18-20). There is no enemy of God too sinful for this gospel to save. And there is no Christian that this gospel is too weak to perfectly conform to Christ and carry to Christ in heaven at the end. The gospel is unstoppable.
c. The gospel is an exclusive power.
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and it is the only power of God unto salvation. He saves by no other way than by his grace through faith in his Son. Not one of us is powerful enough to save our-self or convince God to save us on our own moral record. We all need a power outside ourselves, and it is the gospel. If you refuse to believe in Jesus as your Savior and King, you will not have salvation from God.
d. The gospel is an inclusive power.
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes. It does not matter if you are a Jew, a Greek, an American, a Saudi, or a Moldovan. Faith in Christ, not one’s ethnicity or education or employment, is of the essence.
So I am ready, eager, to preach the gospel to you, and I am in no way ashamed of it, because this gospel of God is the power of God for salvation to every one that believes.
Now, why is that the case? How is it that the gospel is the power of God? Look with me at verse 17 for the answer.
“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed”
3. The gospel is the power of God for salvation because it reveals to us the righteousness of God.
The gospel of God is the gospel about God. In the gospel, God’s righteousness is put on display.
God is righteous, a truth Paul explicitly teaches on in this letter far more than in any other of his letters. What do I mean when I say that God is righteous? A church in London, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, explains the righteousness of God this way.
“‘Righteousness’ is the attribute of acting consistently in a good and right way. As such, it finds its complete expression in the character of God himself. God always acts rightly, in accordance with His nature and promises, and His perfection in this regard is the standard against which every person is measured.”
God is fully dedicated to supremely loving and living for that which is objectively best and most worthy, namely himself. All God does is right and is for his glory. In fact, all God does is right because it is for his glory. Romans 11:36 says, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
How is God’s righteousness put on display in the gospel?
a. The righteousness of God is revealed in his wrath against those who are unrighteous and ungodly.
Consider Romans 1:18. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
The righteous God made men to know him, to glorify him, to honor him, to worship him, and to give him thanks, but…
Romans 1:19 and following says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Instead of loving and living for that which is objectively most valuable and worthy, God himself, all men have gone their own way and together become worthless.
Romans 3:9-18 says,
“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. 13 Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. 14 Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known. 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
There is both present and future wrath upon unrighteous men from this righteous God.
Presently, God in his wrath gives men over to lives of sin and malice.
Consider Romans 1:26-32,
“26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
One important observation to make from verses 26-27 and verse 32 is that the current celebration and promotion of homosexuality in American society is the wrath of God upon us for our sin.
In the future, God’s wrath unleashes itself upon sinners in hell forever.
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.”
Romans 2:8-9 says,
“but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.”
Consider the horror of hell—to enter the domain of the eternal wrath of God. To enter into utter torment and darkness and for it to never end.
No ability to just drive through the torturous moment to get to the end. For there is no end. It is forever.
b. The righteousness of God is revealed in the perfection of his judgement.
While human judges fail, while justice will ever be perverted in this world, God is a righteous judge. His execution of justice is flawless, rendering to all according to their deeds without partiality.
Consider Romans 2:1-11,
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.”
If “gospel” means good news, in what way is the revelation of God’s righteousness to be considered good news to us?
God is perfectly righteous, good in all he is and all he does, fully devoted to his own glory. We are not righteous, no not one of us. And that means that God is wrathful toward us. In our unrighteousness we exist under his wrath and condemnation. This is terrible news. We lack what the Lord demands. Such is our problem. Each of us qualitatively cannot stand right before God. Nothing we could ever do, no matter how much we toil and strive, will be good enough to stand righteously in God’s eyes.
c. The righteousness of God is revealed in his justification of sinners.
Romans 3:21 begins with a small word, “but”. This word, though small, has grand significance. We are wicked. We deserve wrath. BUT. In this word, Paul signifies that, having made our problem clear, he now turns to the only solution.
Consider Romans 3:21 and following.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. ”
The good news of the gospel is that this righteous God has done what is necessary to “righteous” sinners—He has acted in such a way as to celebrate his glory, uphold his perfect justice, and declare sinners like you and I to be righteous. He has acted to justify the ungodly.
So God declares sinners of old and sinners today to be righteous before him; and he does so without compromising his own righteousness, which would be the case if he were to simply leave sin and sinners unpunished.
No, far from leaving sin unpunished, he put forward himself in the person of Jesus Christ to die on the cross as a substitute. Jesus pays the price to redeem sinners on the cross with his own blood. He died on the cross as a propitiation.
This means that God doesn’t simply stop having wrath for the unrighteousness of those he intends to save. He actually takes that infinite wrath and pours it out in full upon his own Son, at the cross. Wrath that we would suffer under for eternity in hell is fully absorbed by the King of kings, by the Divine Lord, in his infinite worth and power, in simply three hours on the cross. Jesus satisfied in full God’s wrath against those whom he would redeem, authoritatively declaring his work finished, the wrath exhausted. And so for all those for whom Christ died, God pours upon them not his wrath but his mercy and grace and kindness. He warmly receives them instead of wrathfully rejecting them.
This immeasurably great gift from God, this gift-righteousness, being declared righteous before him on the basis of the substitutionary death of Jesus, can only be received by faith. It is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” “For we hold that one is justified—declared to be righteous before God by God—by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
That is why, in Romans 1:17, Paul is clear that it is “from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Those who deserve to die can live by faith, by humbly trusting in Jesus as the one who died in their place for their sin.
That brings us to Paul’s final point on the gospel by which he intends to provide a firm basis for our eagerness in its preaching.
4. The only acceptable response to the gospel is faith alone in Christ alone.
If you refuse to stop trusting in yourself and your ability to assuage the wrath of God by your good deeds, or if you continue to refuse to acknowledge him as God, you will face his righteous judgement in your sin and under his wrath, and you will go to hell.
But if you would be brought from under the wrath of God into gracious right standing before God, God accepting you, being pleased with you, setting his affection upon you, calling you his own, calling you his child, considering you a co-heir with Christ, you must understand that all you can bring to your salvation is the sin that makes it necessary. You must realize your moral wickedness before God. You must believe that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, died in your place and for your sin that you might be justified, declared righteous, to have a righteousness not of yourself but of Christ.
Christian reader, does not your Christian life begin and continue by faith, from first to last? If you have true life, it is only because Christ died for you, and you know that God counts his death as your own and his righteousness as your own because he rose from the grave!
Christians have begun in faith, and we can only but continue in faith. Paul spends chapters 1-11 of this letter explaining the gospel. And then he takes chapters 12-16 to explain how this church ought to live in faith. Seeing the righteousness of God in the gospel, and receiving it by faith, Paul now calls us to present ourselves to righteousness. This means that we are now to live the rest of our time on this earth trusting and obeying the God who has saved us. This is what is called worship, or service to the Lord.
“16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
The gospel is the good news that God declares those who trust in Jesus to be righteous on the basis not of their works but his work, Jesus’ death on the cross to assuage the wrath of God and pay the penalty of sin.
Christian reader, your enemy the Devil will seek to cause you to be ashamed of this gospel. If you hold to this gospel the world will mock, reject, and hate you, as it hates your Master.
But do not be ashamed of the gospel!
1. The gospel is from God.
2. The gospel is the power of God for salvation.
3. The gospel is reveals to us the righteousness of God.
3. The gospel can only be received by faith.
And so, with the Apostle Paul, be eager to preach it. Only associate with a church that insists on preaching it every week. Tell this good news to other Christians you know, to your neighbors, to your coworkers, to your family, to strangers, and even to your enemies.
Never cease to be eager to preach the gospel.