Before his third missionary journey, Paul had written all the churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece about collecting donations for the poverty stricken church in Jerusalem. Now at the end of his third journey he is visiting the churches and picking up the collection. One of the last churches he stopped at was Corinth. It was Paul’s intention after delivering the collection to Jerusalem to go to Rome. From Corinth, Paul stopped to write a long letter to the church at Rome to prepare them for the upcoming visit with a systematic presentation of Christianity from initial salvation through victorious Christian living.
Paul had never been to Rome, and he had nothing to do with the origination of the church there. The church in Rome was probably begun by people converted at Pentecost in Acts 2 or possibly by some of the disciples scattered because of persecution in Acts 8. Paul desired to travel to Rome to set up a new base of operations for missionary journeys to Western Europe, specifically Spain which he mentioned in Romans 15:24. Paul was making his own travel plans to go to Rome, but little did he know he would actually arrive in Rome in chains as a prisoner.
Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has had an incredible impact historically on the entire Christian world. Almost every major Christian leader has had a life changing experience after intense study of Romans. Both Martin Luther and John Wesley became believers through studying Romans. Famous theologians like Augustine and John Calvin shaped their theology from Romans.
The Righteousness of God
The theme of Romans can be found in Romans 1:16-17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, the righteous shall live by faith.” Paul uses four key words I want to direct your attention to: power, salvation, faith, and righteousness. Paul was not ashamed to preach the gospel even though he had been threatened, imprisoned, beaten, and run out of many towns. The reason is that it has the POWER to change lives. People have the desire to be changed, to improve theirselves, that is the premise of all advertising. Book stores are full of self help schemes, philosophies, and religions, but none of them have the power to remove sin, and make you right with God. Good works can’t do it, the church can’t do it, religion can’t do it, but the POWER of God can do it. The demonstration of God’s power is to bring people SALVATION. We have been rescued from the penalty of sin by God’s power. The atoning work of Christ on the cross delivers us from a dark depraved world.
This SALVATION comes to everyone who BELIEVES. When you entrust your life to Christ, rely on Him, believe in Jesus as your only Savior, then you are saved. God does not tell people to first behave, no, they must first believe. Good works are a product of salvation, not the means to it. Faith activates the divine power that brings salvation, and in that act of God the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God is revealed. It is a righteousness from God, He imparts His own righteousness to those who believe. The saving activity of God is qualified by human faith. God’s saving activity puts people who believe in right relationship with Himself.
Define the Righteousness of God
Historically, theologians have tried to define “the righteousness of God” with three possible meanings:
1. It refers literally to God’s righteousness—an attribute of God
2. It means the righteousness from God. It is an attribute or position given to people by
God. God gives the believer a new legal standing as righteous.
3. It refers to the righteousness done by God. It is God’s action of putting us in the right.
All three of these seem true to me, but #2 was the view of all the reformers. God has imputed to us His righteousness and imputed our sin to Christ on the cross. Paul systematically presents the righteousness of God in the first five chapters of Romans. He introduces it in 1:17, and gives a full explanation of it in 3:21-26. In between, he proves that all persons need the righteousness of God. In ch.1:18-3:20, he progresses from the bulk of humanity which has been openly hostile to God, to those who consider themselves moral and good, and even to the very religious—all of which fall short of the required righteousness of God. Paul comes to his conclusion in 3:10-18 that “There is none righteous, not even one”.
They asked Will Rogers what was wrong with the world, why it was so messed up. Rogers drawled, “Well I dunno, I guess its people.” The London Times asked G.K. Chesterton to write an article entitled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton wrote a very short article, “I am.Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton” The point is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23). Therefore God in His love and compassion intervened in the person of Jesus Christ who alone can redeem us from the penalty of sin and provide to us the righteousness of God that is required.
Based on verse 18, God is mad, and His wrath is currently being poured out on the human race and this world we live in. In what way? Televangelists will blame diseases, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks on God’s payback, but that is NOT in view here. The answer is given in v.24, 26, and 28. The repetition of an important phrase represents God’s reaction to mankind’s exchange of the truth for a lie, “God gave them over”. God gave them over to their lusts, to their degrading passions, and to a depraved mind. God, in a sense abandoned them, no restraint, no discipline, and no guidance. What is the worst thing you can do to a child? Abandon it. We were created by God to receive guidance and restraint from God. When that is removed, the result is not pretty. Mankind has rebelled against God in a desire for independence. Man’s basic problem is a steadfast determination to remain independent of God and still make life work in a world that God has rigged so that it won’t work. Think of the irony of this—GOD PUNISHES YOU BY LETTING YOU DO WHAT YOU WANT.
Nevertheless, God has not given up on the human race or lost his love for us. This is why He sent His Son to die for us. This is why He has given the church the great commission, and why we pray for people. This is why Paul said “we are ambassadors for Christ as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God.”
Do People Deserve God’s Wrath ?
In Romans 1, I see at least four reasons given why they do deserve wrath. In verse 18-20 we are told that they “suppress the truth”. All people have the truth within them and right before them in creation. God has clearly revealed Himself so that “they are without excuse”. Secondly, they have rejected the one true God. Thirdly, this rejection leads to rationalization—every imaginable excuse and alternative view to excuse their rebellion. This requires the great exchange in v.23, “they exchange the glory of God for an image”. They exchange what is incorruptible for what is corruptible. They exchange what we inherently know for what we rebelliously desire. They exchange the real God for a god of their own choosing. What is the result of this exchange? “They became futile in their speculations…professing to be wise they became fools.” When humans reject the truth they can only use their brains to rearrange error.
What About all Those Good People Who Have Never Heard ?
First of all, after you read Rom.1-3 you will discover there are no good people. There are only people who need a Savior. Secondly, there are no people who have never heard. Paul makes it clear in Rom.1:19-20, that God made all of us with an inherent knowledge of Himself, and a resultant desire for God. He also gave us the natural revelation of an awesome creation with amazing complexity and order that only He could create. Therefore everyone knows there is a God and should be seeking Him. Anyone who seeks God, God has promised to reveal Himself. There are multiple examples in Scripture of people who seemingly had no way to know about God, but God sent messengers to them. The mistake we make is assuming it is impossible to get the Gospel to the deserted isle, or the jungle, but God is sovereignly involved in evangelism. If anyone seeks Him, they will find Him. God knows the hearts of men so God knows who is interested, so let’s leave the impossible to Him.
The Great Commission
The story goes that when Jesus ascended to Heaven after His resurrection, the angels asked, “Has the whole world heard of you?” “No” said Jesus. “Then what is your plan?” Jesus said, “I have left 12 men and their followers to carry the message to the whole world.” The angels looked at Jesus and said, “Those dummies? What is your plan B?”
If it was left solely to us the world would be hopeless, but we have a loving God that “does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)