In the last lesson we learned how Paul, like all ministers, desired the strengthening of the faith of his readers. In this lesson we read how Paul’s desire was to preach the gospel to those who are in Rome.
Years ago, when I was at college, a professor who knew my theater background offered me an independent study on worship. He offered all kinds of ideas for alternate worship styles including opera, plays, and puppet shows. What he wanted was substitute methods for bringing the gospel that could replace the sermon.
While researching the paper, I became convinced of the necessity of preaching. It is through preaching that the Holy Spirit awakens the heart and mind to faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. No shortcuts, novelties, or gimmicks are necessary, nor were they ever employed by the Spirit. Neither were they ever used by Jesus in His ministry, nor by the prophets, apostles, or Paul. For the preacher to be faithful to his calling he must preach the gospel.
While defending my research, I was asked about psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Certainly they can be spiritually uplifting. I have yet to lead a worship service where a congregation mumbled through “It Is Well with My Soul.” Such songs, however, only have an impact on the singer when they understand the gospel. An unbeliever attending the worship service cannot sing with any understanding: “My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought!—My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” It has no meaning for him. That is not to say that God can not use other means to soften the heart, but, generally speaking, it is through the preaching of the gospel.
Preaching of the Gospel
Today preaching has fallen on hard times. Often what people want is simplified messages that easily degenerate into moralistic, self-help talks that cut out the heart of the gospel. True preaching is not several illustrations woven together, nor is it “warm fuzzies” delivered to a passive congregation.
In verse 17, Paul presents the key theme to his epistle—the gospel. It is a gospel of which he is unashamed. Paul had been imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Berea, stoned and left for dead in Lystra, and laughed at in Athens for proclaiming the good news of the resurrection. Jews abhorred the gospel because it subverted the law. Greeks despised it because it was considered foolish. Pagans branded Christians as atheists—something no Pharisee would ever have been able to tolerate. Yet, this was the Word Paul would never give up preaching. Paul was not intimidated by the religious leaders in Jerusalem or the influential pagans in Athens. How unfortunate that we are often ashamed of the gospel because we may face a little criticism or ridicule.
Through the Holy Spirit, the gospel does what no human reasoning can do. It demands of people that they face the reality of their sin and guilt and that they turn to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ to survive the judgment of God. While the justice of God demands that God not leave sin unpunished, the love of God could not leave the human race without a Savior. The heart of the gospel is the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus Christ. That righteousness is offered to all apart from the law and is obtained by faith. In all of Paul’s writings, the righteousness of God is always a free gift from God consisting of the forgiveness of sins, accomplished by Christ, and received by faith.
Throughout the book of Romans faith-righteousness stands opposed to our works-righteousness. Because of our totally depraved nature, we cannot save ourselves. Isaiah points out that even our best works are like filthy rags and stained with sin (Isaiah 64:6). Never can we live up to the perfect obedience God requires of us. God, however, in His mercy and love, has clothed believers with the righteousness of His Son. Only by His righteousness can we be declared righteous. That righteousness is obtained by faith in the sacrifice made for sin by Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
This is the message ministers are called to proclaim each Lord’s Day. The worst insult a homiletics professor could ever give a student in his preaching class is, “That sermon could have been preached in a Jewish synagogue.” Although, just as an aside, one minister I know reported that as he was shaking hands after the service, he once had a parishioner make no mention of the sermon. He just said, “That was a beautiful text you preached on, Dominee.”
Power of the Gospel
The message proclaimed by Paul (and hopefully all preachers) is one of great power. It is not the power of weapons and warriors; it is the power of the Word. Words contain great power. The oft repeated phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” is not spoken in vain. Occupied countries during World War II knew the meaning of the words, “Loose lips sink ships.” Many man-made words are spoken to try to help others feel better about themselves. All kinds of philosophies and lifestyles are promoted so that we no longer feel guilty about our besetting sin. Self-help books can be picked up at garage sales for a dime a dozen. Proverbs 18:4 says, “The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.” If human words can contain such weight, how much more the words of God!
Paul wrote that the gospel is the power of God. While it is brought by men who have many shortcomings, the word that is brought is effective to salvation. It is not an old-fashioned worldview that is now being replaced by humanism. The gospel brings about salvation through Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms a person from death to life, from darkness to light, from bondage to sin to the freedom of being a child of God.
Faith in the message requires a complete surrender to the means supplied by God for salvation. When God declares a sinner to be justified, it is not because God has found something in the sinner that makes him right. It means God treats the sinner as if he had never sinned in the first place. Through faith, a person is restored to a right relationship with God.
Hearing of the Gospel
Paul freely offers the gospel to all who will hear him. First he lists the Greeks and the barbarians (v. 14), then the Jews and the Gentiles (v. 16). For the Greeks, there were only two kinds of people in the world—Greeks and everybody else. Likewise, for the Jews, there were only two kinds of people in the world—Jews and Gentiles. That they could come together where the gospel was being proclaimed illustrates that for God there are only two kinds of people, as well—the saved and the lost.
In Paul’s day the majority of Jews hated the message of the gospel. Paul taught a way that was the exact opposite of their self-righteous salvation. The Jewish leaders wanted people to bear the burden of their own sins and gain salvation through obedience to the law and their good works.
Paul offered salvation through the grace of God by trusting that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s Son who came to bear the burden of their sin. You can imagine the anger this must have raised in the camp of the Pharisees and scribes. If the people would turn away from a religion of works to a religion of grace it would mean the end of their religious tyranny over the people.
On the other hand, the Gentiles also hated the gospel. Brought up in a polytheistic culture, they could not understand how Christians could claim that there was only one God. Paul points out how foolish the gospel sounds to the world in 1 Corinthians 1:21–25.
Yet it is to both Jews and Gentiles that the gospel must be preached, because it is the only way to be reconciled to the one true God. It was to the Jews first because they had been entrusted with the oracles of God. To them belonged the heritage, the glory, the covenants, the law, and the promises (Romans 9:4, 5). It was also for the Gentiles. The gospel does not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles; both must be reconciled to God in the same way—through Jesus Christ.
Despite the fact that the news of their faith had spread throughout the land, the Christians in Rome needed further instruction in the gospel if they wanted to strengthen their faith. Believers must hear the gospel again and again because we are prone to stumble and fall. Although we would never claim to be self-righteousness, we often pride ourselves in our conduct and our keeping of the law rather than boasting in Jesus Christ. The gospel has the power to do what we cannot do—save us. That is why it is such good news! That is why we should never be ashamed of the gospel. It is about our salvation. We must hear again and again that our salvation rests in Christ alone so that we can find joy and comfort in the fact that through Christ alone it is well with our souls.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Is preaching the only way in which the gospel brings people to the knowledge of salvation?
2. Why might Paul have been ashamed of the gospel? Are you ever ashamed of it?
3. To whom does Paul feel obligated to preach the gospel?
4. Is all preaching true preaching? Must all preaching be Christ-centered?
5. What is the gospel?
6. Why is gospel preaching so important? Who is it for? Why?
7. Why should Christians continue to place themselves under the preaching of the gospel?
8. Comment on the following statements:
a. It is difficult for me to talk to others about my faith. I am afraid that, if I talk about Jesus to my neighbors, they will look down on me.
b. I don’t like to talk about the sermon after church because people will think I’m trying to be pious.
c. I know the gospel already. I don’t have to go to church any more.