It’s very typical at our church to introduce a guest preacher on Sunday. We describe him in terms of who he is, where he serves, what he has accomplished, maybe even what he means to others and how he has impacted those around him.
In a similar way, I want to introduce to you the biblical book of Romans. I want you to know what it is, how it has served the world, what it has accomplished, what it means to me and others, and how it has impacted the world throughout history. And, if I can be fully transparent, I want you to be in awe of Romans.
Psychologists call the first stage of a couple’s romantic relationship, “limerence.” It refers to a mental state of profound infatuation. It involves obsessive thoughts and a strong desire to form a relationship. I want you to move you into a stage of limerence with Romans. I want you to be excited about it and experience flushing and heart palpitations as you read it.
The Theme of Romans
To begin, Romans is a book about the gospel. Ask any scholar or Bible student worth his salt and the answer will always be the same. And, they will always point to the same verse to show it.
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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”Romans 1:16-17
Right away, in the first 17 verses, Paul lays his cards on the table. He wants his readers to know how he’s playing it and where he’s heading. He is going to deep dive into the depths of the gospel pool, but he first shows us around the shallow end here in these verses.
So, he makes himself clear. He is leaning into the depths of the gospel. He mentions “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). He says it is “promised beforehand” (Rom. 1:2). He describes it as “concerning his Son,” Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:3). He even calls it “the gospel of his Son” (Rom. 1:9). Then, he expresses his eagerness to preach the gospel to his audience (Rom. 1:15). Finally, he closes his prologue with his thesis found verses 16 and 17. After that, Paul scuba dives in the deep end and doesn’t come up for air until the final chapter.
Speaking of his thesis, there is a lot to unpack, which we will do soon enough. It is helpful to put a few legs on his main theme. There are two things to briefly point out. First, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). It is God’s big answer to man’s big question. It is God’s only solution to man’s only true problem. “How can I be right with the holy God? How can I escape the wrath of God?” The gospel is about getting right with God.
Second, the gospel “reveals the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17). If verse 16 is the what then verse 17 is the how. The righteousness of God underscores the gospel. If the gospel was a slip cork on your fishing line, the righteousness of God is what hangs from the hook. It is the big fish that is pulled out of the waters when the gospel is drawn. The righteousness of God is the root system of garden plant that is pulled during harvest. It is the hidden gem that the gospel reveals. When you pull upon the gospel of God, you discover the righteousness of God.
So, what begins in his thesis (Rom. 1:16-17), continues through the rest of the book. “The righteous shall live by faith,” that is the gospel in one statement and that is what is unpacked for the rest of the book. It is like Paul slightly turns the cap on the fire hydrant to give you a taste in his thesis. Then, beginning with verse 18, he opens the hydrant wide open and unleashes the flood waters.
In chapters 1-3, he says the righteousness of God condemns sinful man. In chapters 3-4, he says the righteousness of God saves those who were condemned. In chapters 5-8, he says the righteousness of God sanctifies those who are saved. In chapters 9-11, he says the righteousness of God selects all who will be sanctified. In chapters 12-16, he closes by saying that the righteousness of God fuels all the sanctified in godly service.
Romans is about the gospel, saturated by the gospel, soaked in the gospel, pouring out the gospel. And, for centuries it has been recognized as the most comprehensive treatment of the gospel. And, the main thrust is the righteousness of God.
The Preeminence of Romans
The word “bible” has evolved to refer figuratively to any resource that is the primary and authoritative source on a subject. For instance, we might refer to the top book on woodworking as the bible of woodworking. In this way, Romans it the bible of the gospel. You might say that the Bible is the bible of the gospel, but Romans is the bible of the Bible. It is the preeminent book in all of Scripture.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet in the nineteenth century, called Romans “the most profound work in existence.” William Newel, a great itinerant Bible teacher, said, “I have taught Romans more than 80 times and the pastures are still green.” C.H. Dodd, a Welsh New Testament scholar and theologian, called Romans “the first and the greatest work of Christian theology and no one in 2,000 years has written anything to match it.” Bruce Metzger, a great biblical scholar, called Romans the “Constitution of Universal Christianity.”
Consider its location in your Bibles. Romans it the first of all New Testament epistles. Not because it was the first epistle ever written, because it was the seventh. Not because it was the first epistle written by Paul, because it was the sixth. It is first because it is primary and preeminent.
When it comes to the gospel, there is no book that is more comprehensive, more inclusive, more complete, more sufficient, more careful, more extensive, more instructional. Romans is the bible of the gospel. That is not to say that no other book in the Bible is authoritative, they all are. It is not to say that no other book in the Bible talks about the gospel, they all do. It is to say that on the subject of the gospel, Romans is the single source that rises above the rest in terms of its comprehensive treatment of the gospel.
If you could have one book of the Bible, Romans is your book. Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton, a popular Christian apologist, which one book he would most like to have on a stranded island. “Give me Romans,” he said. (Actually, he first joked, Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.) Romans is so comprehensive that it opens up all of the Bible to us. If you can understand Romans, you can understand Scripture. John Calvin acknowledged this, “When anyone understands Romans, he has an open road to understanding the whole Bible.”
For this reason, Romans is the preeminent book. In the draft, Romans is the first choice. In the court, Romans is the starting lineup. In the game, Romans is the most valuable player. It stands above. It rises above. It leads the charge. It is always behind the steering wheel and in the driver’s seat. Steven Lawson, a contemporary theologian and preacher, said that “Romans is the Mount Everest that rises above the theological landscape of Scripture and all other epistles surround it.”
The Impact of Romans
Within the last two years, there was an explosion at a plant over twenty miles east of our home. There was a massive boom that caused our windows to shake. It was as if the sound originated in our backyard. The book of Romans exploded on the scene in AD 57, and it has left its impact on history like a massive boom. Here are a few thunderous booms that the book of Romans has caused.
The most influential theologian after Paul was called Augustine of Hippo. He lived a rather immoral life before his conversion repeatedly rejecting Christ and repentance until one day in his friend’s garden. He was contemplating his sin when he heard a young child singing the words tolle lege, tolle lege, which means “take up and read, take up and read.” Convinced that this was God speaking to him, he ran over to take up and read a nearby scroll which contained a portion of Romans. This is what he read:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.Romans 13:13-14
Struck to his heart, he repented and was born again. Afterward, he wrote this, “No further would I read, nor had I any need. Instantly, as the sentence ended—a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” God used one sentence from Romans to save Augustine who became one of the most significant Christian thinkers and responsible for a powerful theological system that influences us even today.
Years later, there was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. He too was an influential theologian and the man who single handedly started the Protestant Reformation with a sheet of paper. Luther was a man tormented with guilt. He was a student of the Bible, but found his studies driving him more and more troubled and bankrupt. He hated God. He didn’t understand why God made the standard of righteousness so high that it was impossible for any man to attain it.
Then one day, while he was reading Romans 1:16-17, God opened the eyes of his heart and helped him see that salvation was by faith in the righteousness of God. Luther exploded with belief and was born again. He described it this way:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, `the righteousness of God. Because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous. Night and day I pondered until I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby through grace and sheer mercy He justifies us by faith. There upon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise, the whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the righteousness of God had filled me with hate, it now began to fill me inexpressibly with a sweet love. The passage of Paul became to me the gateway to heaven.”
Another theologian whom we know by the name of John Wesley. He is the founder of Methodism. While reading Luther’s commentary on Romans, he came to faith. He said, “I myself felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust in Christ and Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sins away, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The trail of transformation connected to the book of Romans is long and wide. Federick Godet, a Swiss Protestant theologian who described Romans as the “cathedral of the Christian faith,” said, “every great spiritual revival in the church will be connected to a deeper understanding of this book.” Gordon Fee, an American theologian, described Romans as “arguably the most influential book in Christian history, and perhaps in the history of Western civilization.”
Lastly, maybe one more closer to home. I studied Romans in my early twenties through Bible Study Fellowship, an international ministry that teaches the Bible. It says in its introduction to Romans, “Christianity has been the most powerful, transforming force in human history, and the book of Romans is the fullest, most comprehensive statement of true Christianity.”
The study of Romans was unlike any other study I have had prior and since. I encountered the power of God through Romans in a way that resulted in what I can only describe as personal revival. It caused me to continually wrestle with its truth. I was so engulfed in contemplation that I didn’t speak much at all for weeks. It was as Gustav Adolf Deissmann, a German theologian in the early nineteen hundreds, said, “Holy fire shows between the lines of Romans.” This was my experience. And, I haven’t studied Romans since. Once Romans exploded, it left a trail of transformation and I hope that you will feel the boom.
The Content of Romans
Romans is the lengthiest epistles of Paul. In it, he quotes the Old Testament more than 60 times which is more than any New Testament book, even more than all of Paul’s other epistles combined. Most of these quotations are found in chapters 9-11, which are arguably the most controversial chapters.
Unlike his other epistles, Paul is not writing to respond to questions or conflicts. So, this allows him to talk about what matters most to him, and to spend as much time as he desires. This is why the book of Romans is an in-depth look on the gospel. It is written in a sequential manner, very logical and carefully crafted. Readers are able to flow from verse-to-verse like a river down his path of thinking.
In it, Paul mentions God 153 times, law 72 times, Christ 65 times, and sin 48 times, which are the key words of the gospel. He discusses matter morally, intellectually, socially, psychologically, spiritually, nationally, internationally, supernaturally, and theologically. He answers virtually every top question a Christian might think like (as John MacArthur puts it):
What is the good news of God? Is Jesus really God? What proves Jesus is God? Why did Jesus come? What is a saint? What is God like? How can God send people to hell? What will happen to people who have never heard the gospel? Why do men reject God and Christ? Why are there false religions and idols?
What is man’s biggest sin? Why is there sex perversion, hate, crime and those other things and why are they so rampant? What is the standard by which God condemns people? How can a person who has never head be held responsible?
Are Jews more responsible to believe than Gentiles? Who is a true Jew? Is it any advantage to be Jewish? How good is man? How bad is man? Can anyone keep God’s law? How do we know we’re sinners? How are we justified and forgiven? How is a Christian related to Abraham?
What is the importance of Christ’s death? What is the importance of His resurrection? What is the importance of His present life? For whom did Christ die? Where can men find real peace and hope? How are we related spiritually to Adam and how are we related spiritually to Christ?
What is grace? And what does it do? How does a person die spiritually to be reborn? What is the Christian’s relation to sin? How important is obedience? How are law and grace related to one another? Why is it such a struggle to live the Christian life? How many natures does a believer have?
What does the Holy Spirit do for us? How intimate is a Christian’s relationship to God really? Why is there suffering? Will the world ever be any different? How can I pray properly? What does predestination mean? How secure is a Christian? What is God’s present plan for Israel? What is His future plan for Israel? Why have the Gentiles been chosen?
What is our responsibility to Israel? How is a person saved? And what is the basic bottom line for Christian commitment? What is the Christian’s relationship to the world, to other Christians, to the unsaved, to the government?
What is love and how does it work? How do we deal with neutral things, things that are neither right nor wrong? What is true freedom? How important is unity in the church?
Surely, there are questions tucked away in there that appeal to each of us today. God will answer those questions in the book of Romans in one or more of its sections. I’ve divided Romans into seven parts:
- 1:1-17 = The Introduction of the Gospel
- 1:18-3:20 = The Necessity of the Gospel — “sin”
- 3:21-4:25 = The Essence of the Gospel — “salvation”
- 5:1-8:39 = The Assurance of the Gospel — “sanctification”
- 9:1-11:36 = The Defense of the Gospel — “selection”
- 12:1-15:13 = The Power of the Gospel — “service”
- 15:14-16:27 = The Ministry of the Gospel
Have you reached the stage of limerence yet? Are you infatuated with the book of Romans? Does your heart palpitate just thinking about our study? I hope it does. I’m so excited about it that I’ve decided that my tombstone should read, “He loved God and taught Romans.”
Let me close with some words from Martin Luther on the book of Romans:
“This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, the purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”