Series on Romans, I The Gospel Paul Proclaimed, B Concerned, Text: 1:8-15, Title: Driven by Debt

Introduction

Romans is replete with vital themes that are essential to understanding the gospel message. It is organized like most of Paul’s letters with the first part weighted with doctrinal exposition of the foundations of our faith. The latter part is more concerned with an application of those truths to the believers’ devotion and obedience. Thus in chapter 12:1 and 2 we have the ultimate appeal which is empowered by all that has gone before, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. In our first study we looked at the salutation of Paul and his emphasis on the fact that he and we are called like our Savior Jesus. In this present section we find Paul’s commitment to the people. It is easy to assume that great theologians are cold and isolated and not too friendly. Even though Romans is probably the greatest theological treatise of all time, Paul was a warm and feeling missionary. One of the reasons I loved my time at Westminster Theological Seminary was that the erudite and renowned professors were always caring, patient, attentive and sympathetic to their students. They were truly pious men. Paul reveals the same characteristics here. He shows it in his appreciation, his fellowship and his indebtedness. We look first at his declaration of appreciation.

I A Declaration of Appreciation

We read of Paul’s  appreciation in verse 8, First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. Paul is writing to believers who are at the nerve center of a great anti-Christian empire. Because they are at the heart of this empire, their faith is spoken of throughout the world meaning the whole empire which was regarded as the world. The rest of the Christians throughout the empire were encouraged by the existence of a church so close to the seat of power. Rome is pictured as the enemy in the New Testament. In Revelation 17 it is called Babylon the great,  a harlot and we know the Apostle John was referring to Rome for two reasons. First, because she has seven heads and Rome was known as the city of seven hills, and secondly because the Caesars of Rome were the chief persecutors of the Church in its early days. Paul and all the believers were cheered and strengthened by the realization of Christian brothers and sisters in the vicinity of the emperor’s palace. However, Paul also appreciated that the grace of God had touched their lives. All of the letters to churches in the New Testament and especially Paul’s begin with love and encouragement and  not judgment. Though Paul may have some hard things to say and many may need correction and discipline, he always begins with appreciation. I Corinthians, for example, was written to a church riddled with pride, divisions, lack of love and immorality and yet Paul begins in 1:4-9 with these words, I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. We are all apt to begin with criticism and often it far outweighs our compliments. Someone has suggested that it takes 10 compliments to overcome the damage done by one cruel criticism. We read in James 3:9 and 10, With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. One time a father taught his son a valuable lesson we should all learn. They were visiting Echo Lake near Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, and the little boy stood at the designated place and yelled, “Come out ; I’ll fight you.” The echo came back momentarily “Come out; I’ll fight you” He ran to tell his father about the mythical bad boy. His Dad said, “Why don’t you try yelling, ‘I Love you’” He did and, of course, the echoing answer came back, “I love you.”

II A Desire for Fellowship

Paul’s intense desire for fellowship is expressed in verses 9-13, God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. Although Paul remembered the Roman believers in all his prayers, his focus was particularly on an opportunity to visit them and minister among them. The intensity of Paul’s desire is marked by the following facts: 1) Paul prayed for an opportunity and this was counter to his own needs and safety. How often we pray for our needs and wants to be fulfilled and for protection. Yet here is Paul praying that he might, virtually, walk into the lion’s den, a place where he was later imprisoned. Still his concern was not for himself but for the body of Christ. 2) Paul continued to pray in spite of the fact that he had often been providentially hindered from making the trip. He would not give up and was determined to minister at any cost. 3) The church at Rome was predominantly Gentile. Earlier Paul’s ministry almost always began with visits to the synagogues and ministry first to his own people, the Jews. Even this letter has a lot to say about Israel and its need. Still he desired to demonstrate that he was the apostle to the Gentiles. 4) He prayed because he understood what the church was; a place where when one member suffers all suffer, and when one rejoices all rejoice. He was determined because he could see the benefit to himself as a member of that body and also to the whole church of Christ. 5) He prayed because he realized that God must open the door, I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. Paul must, therefore, have believed that it was a divine mandate. In the light of all this, should not Christians today be ashamed when they are content with being entertained, or watching worship on TV while their brethren in Christ miss them and need them and they also need the fellowship of the body.

III A Debt of Grace

Paul describes his indebtedness in verses 14 and 15, I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. We must strive to understand what this debt is that Paul owes and to whom does he owe it? It is rather easy to identify the debt for it is the debt to love the brethren and to spread the good news of the gospel. Of those who have received much, much shall be required. Paul speaks of Greeks and non-Greeks and that means the civilized and the uncivilized in the thoughts of Graeco-Roman people. When Paul says the wise and the foolish, he is not insulting the people to whom he is writing. He is not calling some of them stupid. The Greek culture elevated wisdom and beauty as the pinnacle of civilization, but the gospel was for everybody and not just those who were regarded as “civilized.” Moreover we owe a debt to one another in the body of Christ. We have all been purchased by the blood of Christ and by that sacred bond we are bound together in the unity of the Spirit. Regardless of our station in life or our circumstances, the servant of servants, Jesus Christ, loved us and gave His life for us. He asks above all things that we love one another. And as Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:12-16,  The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. We were not saved as individuals but as part of a body and therefore we have as much indebtedness to one another as to parts of our own bodies. Where would the eye be without the brain, and where would the hand be without the arm? However our great obligation and debt stems from the love of Christ which is what motivates and impels us to love one another and constrains us to preach the gospel to the lost. The measure of that obligation is illustrated by the story of a church member who approached his pastor because he was having difficulty with a passage in the book of Romans, Chapter 9. There in verse 13 we read, Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”  The member said He could not understand this. The pastor asked him, “Which part of the verse are you having trouble with?” He replied that he could not understand that God could hate Esau. The pastor said, “I am troubled by this verse too, but the the first half; I  never could understand how God could love Jacob.” Do you see the wonder of God loving you? Paul did, and it made him a debtor to grace.