by Joe McKeever
Editor's Note: In this series, Joe encourages and challenges pastors to take on the message of Romans in their churches by laying the groundwork for study, application, and appreciation of this most intense of Paul's epistles.
1) Romans is the Gospel According to Paul
Granted, it doesn't look like Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, in the way their Gospels told the story of Jesus' earthly ministry and interspersed it with His teachings. Paul does it in his own way.
Right now, there are people promoting their religion in your neighborhood who want to give a new interpretation to Holy Scripture. One such group tells of an angel appearing to their founder with golden tablets on which had been written an ancient story. The result was their new book, their new doctrine, and their new twist on the biblical message of Christ.
Now, in Galatians 1:8, we find this warning: "Even though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel to you that what we preached, let him be accursed."
The point of that is this: we hold in our hands the very message Paul preached up and down the Roman Empire. It's called "The Epistle to the Romans." And Paul says anyone preaching anything other than that is declaring a lie and headed for judgment. Slice it any way you please and it comes up that way!
That's why it's crucial we help our people to get a solid understanding of Romans.
Someone asked a bank teller, "How did you learn to recognize all the different kinds of counterfeit money people try to slip past you?" She answered, "There's no way we could learn all the fakes. They just teach us to recognize the real thing. Once we know that, it's a simple matter to catch the counterfeits."
In teaching Romans, we are helping our people to know and recognize the real gospel of Jesus Christ. There could be no better preparation for dealing with the shams and fakes combing the streets of your neighborhood looking for the naive and unsuspecting.
2) Romans is Deep
Ah, but you knew that. You've started reading it, determining to enjoy it and learn from it, to grow deeper in Christ. Pretty soon, you're deep all right-in over your head-and you're not out of the first chapter! Welcome to the writings of Paul.
Romans is left-brain material. All logic and reason and well-thought out arguments based on revelations of God in the Old Testament as enlightened by the Holy Spirit. There's not a single funny story in the entire epistle! No jokes, no illustrations to speak of, and not a single cartoon if you can believe that-nothing but solid reasoning. It is pure truth.
You may remember what the Apostle Peter said about Paul's writings, "...just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:15-16).
We notice three things in Peter's one-sentence commentary on Paul's writings. A) There are some things hard to understand. We knew that; we're just glad someone admits it! B) People without adequate understanding misinterpret Paul's writings and get in big trouble. If you question this, tune in any of the hundreds of radio or television preachers and stand amazed at what you hear. C) Paul's writings are Scripture. Granted, the word "scripture" simply means "writings," but early on, the word was used by believers to refer to Holy Scripture. Biblical historians tell us the early church elevated these writings to Scripture status quickly.
Although Romans is deep, it's not all over your head. Much of it is accessible to new believers and those without a biblical background. You don't have to know Greek or have a seminary degree to appreciate chapter 8 of Romans, one of the most sublime chapters in any writings of any time. Scattered throughout the rest of the epistle are gems which the Holy Spirit distributed to encourage us to come on in, open your mind and heart, for what's ahead is well worth the effort.
3) This Scripture Has Your Name, Knows Your Secrets, and Takes No Prisoners!
Not only are you a sinner, a dirty rotten scoundrel who is in big trouble, but you are the object of the Lord's affection and the chosen by Him for salvation in Christ and eternal life. No exceptions. We're all unworthy; we're all beloved.
Read the first two chapters and decide that Paul (through the Holy Spirit) is talking only about the really, really bad guys among us and you will miss the point altogether. He's talking about you; He's talking about me-the best of us, the worst of us, all of us.
"Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations ....professing to be wise, they became fools" (1:21-22). Sound like anyone you know?
"They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever" (1:25). Don't let yourself off too easily there by pretending you have never worshiped an idol. False gods come in an endless variety.
"Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents..."(1:29-30).
Whoa! Disobedient to parents! What's that doing in there in the middle of such a disgusting lineup of forbidden behavior? The answer is that this is the root of many of the other evils. Rebellion against one's parents was so evil that in the Mosaic Law it was punishable by stoning! I guarantee you they wouldn't have to do that more than once a century to get the attention of the youngsters. It sounds unduly harsh to us-and it was harsh-but, think of the millions who end up dying tragically because they rebelled against their parents and no one called them to task for it.
A common mistake of God's people is to read that awful list and give ourselves a passing grade because we don't do most of those things. But the fact that we do any at all is our condemnation.
Think for a moment of the time when Jesus said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). Who exactly was this man to whom Jesus was speaking? Nicodemus was the choicest product of the Jewish faith. He was a good man by anyone's standards except God's. Religious, righteous, meticulous-he took his faith seriously.
It was to this man that Jesus said, "Except you be born again, you will not see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). The point being that if this man needs to be saved, as good as he is, surely everyone else does too. Had Jesus spoken those words to a bum off the streets, we would have said, "Well, sure he does. Look at him. But I'm okay." The Lord closed that loophole before we got a chance to consider it.
Jesus did not leave Nicodemus there, but told him that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." (John 3:16). Here in Romans, God's Word is talking about the depraved condition of all of humanity, not just the worst among us, and the need of all of us for a Savior. If you miss that point, nothing else in this epistle will work.
My favorite commentary on Romans is the one by R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven. His explanations are clear and his illustrations excellent.
Hughes quotes Russian poet and novelist Ivan Turgenev: "I do not know what the heart of a bad man is like, but I know what the heart of a good man is like, and it is terrible."
The gospel of Jesus Christ is for sinners. That's why you ought to get down on your face before God and thank Him every day!
Jesus said, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:13). To anyone teaching Romans, I offer this word of counsel: Make certain your hearers know you are talking about them, not just "others" or "those people who do depraved things." As the old spiritual puts it, "It's me, it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."
When I was a young minister, I said to Marguerite Briscoe (a 75-year-old retired school principal, a prayer warrior, and our local Baptist version of Mother Teresa), "You are the godliest person I know." She answered, "Oh, honey, if you only knew." I'm now only a few years short of the age Marguerite was when she said that. Once in a while, some young person will email me with words similar to the ones I spoke to Marguerite. Usually, I ignore it or just thank them and let it go, but what I think is, "Oh, honey, if you just knew."
Joe McKeever is director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans