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Lesson 26: Happiness in the Kingdom, Part II: Prestige and Persecution (Luke 6:17-26)

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(Part II) In part 2 of the examination of this text we again look at the key idea of, “happy are you who find your satisfaction in Christ and His kingdom,” and particularly in this message, “…and have abandoned the quest to find satisfaction in the prestige this kingdom offers.” In this passage, we continue to observe how Jesus takes concepts that we would conceive to be categorized one way and reverses them so that we might see something of greater value to pursue in place of that concept. Pastor Daniel points out Jesus’s message that, “Blessed are you who weep,” helping us to understand that we are fortunate if the state of this present world brings us sorrow and godly discontentment. Furthermore, in studying the statement, “Blessed are you who are hated,” the challenge comes to consider ourselves fortunate if we crave the reward of our King more than the approval of rebellious fellow slaves. This is a message for those who wonder if Jesus offers something better than anything this world presents us with.

Summary by Seth Kempf, Bethany Community Church Staff

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Kingdom, Spiritual Life


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This sermon series on the book of Zephaniah was preached by Jeff Miller at Trinity Bible Church in 2013. Click on an individual sermon for an abstract of the message and to access both audio and video of the message.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Eschatology (Things to Come), Prophecy/Revelation, Prophets

1. God's Judgment Is Announced (Zephaniah 1:1)

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Zephaniah (part one)

The minor prophet Zephaniah presents a view of God that might disturb many Christians. We certainly know that our God is loving, and we tend to emphasize this quality while neglecting His other attributes. But our loving God is also a just God whose holiness is offended by our sin. He rightly demands a measure of subjection from His creation and, when we repeatedly thumb our nose at Him, He rightly meets our rebellion with His judgment. It never comes as a surprise, though. God in His mercy constantly invites us to live on His terms which He clearly defines for us. Sometimes that invitation includes an angry warning of judgment from a God who has grown disgusted with His creation's long, arrogant disregard.

Related Topics: Character of God, Eschatology (Things to Come), Failure

Lesson 1: Romans: The Gospel of God (Romans 1:1, Introduction)

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I’ve been a pastor for 33 years now, but I’ve shied away from preaching through Romans. To be honest, it has always intimidated me. Whenever I teach God’s Word, I am painfully aware of Paul’s rhetorical question (2 Cor. 2:16), “And who is adequate for these things?” But I am especially aware of my inadequacy when it comes to preaching through Romans! It contains some of the deepest theological truths in all of God’s Word. If we get even a glimmer of their majesty, we will join Paul on our faces, exclaiming (Rom. 11:33), “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

So the daunting task before me is to teach God’s unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways in such a way that we all will bow in wonder and worship before Him. And yet, I am painfully aware that I still don’t understand many portions of Romans! But I decided that if I wait to understand it all adequately, I’ll never teach through the book. So with fear and trembling, we begin.

The influence of Romans: God has used this powerful letter in some remarkable ways. In A.D. 386, Aurelius Augustinus, whom we know as Augustine, a North African man, was a professor of rhetoric at Milan, Italy (this and the stories of Luther and Wesley are in F. F. Bruce, Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], pp. 56-58). He was a follower of a false cult called Manichaeism. Under conviction about his sins, but not yet resolved to follow Christ, he sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius. Suddenly, he heard a child on the other side of the fence singing, Tolle, lege! (“Take up and read!”) He had never heard this song before, so he took it as a word from God. He picked up a scroll of the Bible and his eyes fell at random on Romans 13:13-14, “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”

Augustine later wrote, “Instantly, at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” He was saved from his life of sexual immorality. He went on to become the most influential man in church history from the time of Paul to the Reformation, over 1,000 years after Augustine.

Unlike Augustine, Martin Luther, whom God used to spawn that Reformation, was not an immoral man. He was a scrupulous monk, striving through fasting, prayer, and severe treatment of his body to find peace with God. He felt condemned because of the sins that he knew lurked in his heart. As he pored over Scripture, looking for an answer, he wrestled with Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Instead of loving God, as he knew he should, Luther found himself hating God in his heart because of this apparently impossible standard of God’s Law that requires us to be perfectly righteous.

As Luther wrestled with this text, God finally opened his eyes to see that God’s righteousness is that which He freely imputes to the guilty sinner who has faith in Jesus. Luther wrote that then he felt reborn and that he had entered into Paradise. Scripture took on a new meaning and the concept of God’s righteousness, rather than filling him with hate, now became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. He called Romans “the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel.”

Two hundred years later, John Wesley had formed a “Holy Club” at Oxford, striving to live in a manner pleasing to God. He had served as a missionary in Georgia, but had failed miserably. Then, on May 24, 1738, in great agitation of soul he went to a meeting at Aldersgate Street in London, where someone was reading from the preface of Luther’s commentary on Romans. Wesley wrote in his journal, “At about a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, 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.” That conversion was the spark that lit the great 18th century revival that changed the history of England.

Romans also profoundly affected the life of the church father, Chrysostom, who had it read to him twice each week. God used it in John Bunyan’s conversion. The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said that Romans is “the profoundest piece of writing in existence” (these examples from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], pp. 5-7). So God has greatly used the Book of Romans at some key moments in church history. The Swiss commentator, Frederic Godet, wrote (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 1) that “every great spiritual revival in the church will be connected as effect and cause with a deeper understanding of this book.”

The theme: Godet sums up the theme of Romans (ibid., italics his): “For what is the Epistle to the Romans? The offer of the righteousness of God to the man who finds himself stripped by the law of his own righteousness (1:17).” John Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], xxix-xxx, italics in this edition), “… that man’s only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.”

In a nutshell, the theme is the gospel: the good news that God declares sinners to be righteous when they trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf. It involves both the imputed righteousness of justification (Romans 3-5) and the imparted righteousness of sanctification, worked out progressively through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 6-8). Other sub-themes, such as “flesh versus Spirit,” and “law versus grace,” relate to this overall theme. We will grapple with these as we work through the book.

The author, date, recipients, and purpose: Romans is one of the rare New Testament books where liberal scholars have not challenged the authorship. Almost all agree that Paul wrote Romans, although he used a secretary named Tertius (16:22). He wrote it from Corinth (Acts 20:2-3), probably sometime around A.D. 56-58, just as he was about to go to Jerusalem with the gift for the poor that he had collected from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia (15:25-26). Phoebe (16:1-2), who was from a port city near Corinth, probably carried the letter to Rome. After his ministry in Jerusalem, Paul hoped to pass through Rome, minister there briefly, and then be helped on his way to do further missionary work in Spain (15:24, 28).

We don’t know how the church in Rome began. It is almost certain that, contrary to Roman Catholic tradition, Peter did not start it, at least by being there. If he had been there, surely Paul would have included him in his long greeting list (16:1-15). Probably the church began when some Jews who were present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10) got saved and returned home. By the time Paul wrote this letter, the church contained Jews, but was predominately Gentile (1:13; 11:13, 17-31; 15:14-16).

While it is obvious that Romans is Paul’s theological masterpiece, the difficult underlying question is, “Why did he write these truths in this book to this church?” The bottom line is, nobody knows for certain. One reason Paul wrote was to prepare for his intended visit there on his way to Spain. He wanted to secure a western base for that venture.

Perhaps, also, he anticipated that the Judaizers, who plagued his ministry at every step, would try to inflict their errors on the Roman church. To head off that possibility and to defend the gospel of grace that he preached everywhere, Paul felt it necessary to write out a longer treatise, expanding on many of the themes that he had earlier written in Galatians.

He also wrote to help resolve any conflict between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome over various food and Sabbath laws (14:1-15:13). Thomas Schreiner sums up Paul’s purposes (Romans [Baker], p. 28), “From the inception of the letter Paul wants to persuade the Romans that his gospel is orthodox and worth supporting. His goal is to unify the Roman church and rally them around his gospel so that they will help him to bring the gospel to Spain.”

Outline and flow of thought: There is a more detailed outline in the bulletin, but we can trace six main sections:

  1. Introduction and Theme (1:1-17)
  2. Sin (1:18-3:20)
  3. Salvation (3:21-5:21)
  4. Sanctification (6:1-8:39)
  5. Sovereignty (9:1-11:36)
  6. Service (12:1-16:27)

After introducing the letter, Paul sums up his theme (1:16-17), “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 to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

Then (1:18-3:20), he shows how God in His righteousness is opposed to all sin and all people have sinned. The “good” pagans who did not have the Law of Moses have sinned apart from that Law and will perish because of their sin. The religious Jews, who received the Law, have sinned and will perish because of their sin. Thus no one can hope to be justified in God’s sight because of his own goodness or obedience to the Law.

Since this is the case, salvation must be by God’s grace alone (3:21-5:21). Jesus Christ offered Himself as the only sacrifice for our sins, satisfying God’s justice. By faith alone we can lay hold of the benefits of His sacrifice, just as Abraham and David did. This faith in Christ reconciles us to God and brings us peace, joy, and hope, even in the midst of our trials. By God’s grace, our old identity in Adam is replaced by our new identity in Christ.

But (6:1-8:39), God’s grace does not mean that we are free to go on living in sin. Rather, by being identified with Jesus in His death and resurrection, we too have died to the old life and live to the new. The power of sin is broken, because we are no longer under the Law, but under grace. Although, due to indwelling sin that still remains in us, we struggle against sin, through the indwelling Holy Spirit we have victory in Christ. The hope of future glory in Him and the assurance of God’s unfailing love sustain us in all our trials.

But there seems to be a problem (9:1-11:36): Why have the Jews for the most part rejected God’s grace in Christ? At first glance, it would seem that God’s promises to Israel have failed. But this is not so. Rather, God has always set His choice on a remnant and passed by others. Even so, God has temporarily set aside the Jews because of their rejection of Christ and poured out His grace on the Gentiles. But finally, He will use the Gentiles to bring salvation again to the Jews, all according to His great wisdom and unto His great glory.

In light of these abundant mercies (12:1-16:33), we must give our entire being to God and serve Him in practical godliness. Our relationships should be marked by loving service. We should be subject to our civil government. We should be careful not to wound our fellow Christians by our liberty in Christ. We should join Paul in working to take the gospel to the Gentiles, according to God’s promises. And, as a practical display of Christian love, Paul warmly greets his friends in Rome, ending with a final warning to be on guard against those who cause dissension and strife.

With that as a brief synopsis of the flow of thought of the entire book, I’d like to focus briefly on Romans 1:1, where we see Paul the man; Paul’s Master; Paul’s mandate; Paul’s mission; and Paul’s message.

1. Paul the man:

The most common formula for letters in that time began by identifying the author, then naming the recipients, followed by a word of greeting. Romans, along with all New Testament letters, except for Hebrews and 1 John, begins that way.

The late New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce says of Romans (ibid., pp. 37-38), “There is more autobiography in this letter than meets the eye—the autobiography of a man who has been justified by faith.” Since most of you know the story of Paul’s amazing conversion, I will just mention it in passing. He was an extremely zealous Jew, bent on persecuting the church. He was responsible for the imprisonment and death of many Christians. But the Lord struck him down on the Damascus Road with a blinding vision of Himself (told in Acts 9:3-21; 22:3-16; & 26:4-18). God commanded this Jewish zealot to become His instrument to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, whom he formerly hated (Acts 26:17). God used Paul to take the gospel into Europe, which is why most of us are now Christians.

While perhaps few of us have had the kind of dramatic conversion that Paul experienced, we all should ask ourselves, “Has my heart been changed by personally experiencing God’s grace in Christ’s death and resurrection on my behalf? Am I, like Paul, a new person through faith in Jesus Christ?”

2. Paul’s Master: “A slave of Christ Jesus…”

The word “bond-servant” means “slave.” It emphasizes the “subordinate, obligatory, and responsible nature of his service in his exclusive relation to his Lord.… The slave owes his master exclusive and absolute obedience…. His work earned him neither profit nor thanks; he was only doing what he owed as a bondslave” (R. Tuentes, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 3:596, 595). Jesus Christ had bought Paul with His own blood. Thus Paul was no longer his own, but he belonged exclusively to Christ, to do His will. For Paul, Christ was the center of his life. Note how often he refers to Christ in these opening verses: “Christ Jesus” (1:1); “His Son” (1:3); “His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:4); “His name’s sake” (1:5); “Jesus Christ” (1:6); and, “the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).

The questions we need to ask here are, “Is Jesus my exclusive Master because He bought me with His blood? Do I view my daily life as not my own, but belonging to Jesus to serve Him? Do I seek to obey Him, beginning on the thought level? Is He central to my thoughts, words, and activities?”

3. Paul’s mandate: “a called apostle.”

Paul didn’t take a vocational aptitude test that indicated that apostle would be a good career track for him. Rather, he was pursuing his chosen religious career, rising in the ranks of Judaism by persecuting the church, when God knocked him to the ground and saved him. He told Paul (Acts 22:10), “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told all that has been appointed for you to do.” That mandate primarily was to be an apostle (“sent one”) to the Gentiles, whom Paul formerly despised. The assignment included suffering much for the name of Christ.

When applied to the twelve and to Paul, “apostle” carried the special authority to lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:10; 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). Coupled with the word “called,” “apostle” emphasizes the authority that Paul received from God, given to us in these New Testament epistles. Douglas Moo (the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 42) observes, “Any reading of this great theological treatise that ignores this claim to authority will fail to come to grips with the ultimate purpose of its writing.”

The application question here is, “Is my heart in submission to what God has revealed here through His called apostle, Paul?” One of the difficult topics that Romans addresses is that of predestination. As I wrestled with this as a college student over 40 years ago, I found myself fighting against what Paul wrote in Romans 9. The breakthrough for me was when I finally realized, “This isn’t just Paul’s word; this is God’s word, and I must submit to it if I am going to be a Christian.”

4. Paul’s mission: “Set apart for the gospel of God.”

The word “set apart” is related in Greek to the word “Pharisee,” which was Paul’s former association. The Pharisees proudly viewed themselves as set apart or separate from the common Jews (John 9:34), and especially as separate from the Gentile “dogs.” But ironically, now Paul is set apart to preach the riches of Christ to the very Gentiles whom he formerly hated. In Galatians 1:15, he says that God had set him apart from his mother’s womb and called him by His grace so that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles (see, also Acts 9:15; 13:2).

As we saw recently when we studied 1 Corinthians 9:23, Paul said, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel ….” While few of us are called into a full-time ministry of preaching or evangelism, we should be growing to imitate Paul, so that our lives are focused more and more on the gospel—first, for our own souls, and then, to proclaim it to others. So we should apply Paul’s mission by asking, “Do I increasingly view my life as set apart for the gospel?”

5. Paul’s message: “The gospel of God.”

As I understand it, the genitive (“of God”) means that the gospel comes from God. He devised the plan before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). As 1 John 4:10 puts it, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Also, the gospel is all about God. He is both its source and its object (Schreiner, p. 37). The gospel is about how we as sinners can be rightly related to the holy God through the sacrifice of His Son. It’s about how God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). As John Piper puts it, “God is the gospel.” He is the treasure that we receive when we believe the good news that Christ died for our sins.

Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 20) points out,

The thought of God dominates this epistle. The word “God” occurs 153 times in Romans, an average of once every 46 words. This is more than in any other New Testament writing (except the short 1 Peter and 1 John). … And not only does “God” occur in Romans more frequently than in any other writing, it occurs more often than any other theme in that book. Apart from a few prepositions, pronouns, and the like, no word is used in Romans with anything like the frequency of “God.”

He concludes (p. 40), “God is the most important word in this epistle.” He also points out (ibid.) that Paul uses gospel 60 out of its 76 New Testament occurrences, the most being nine times each in Romans and Philippians. He uses it in all of his letters except Titus. The gospel is the ultimate good news, that although we are sinners, God made a way through the sacrifice of His Son to reconcile us to Himself. And although it was costly for Him, it is absolutely free to all who believe in Jesus Christ!

The application questions here are, “Am I growing to know God more deeply? Is my understanding of God shaped more by popular cultural ideas or by the great doctrines of the Bible? And, is the good news from God and about God increasingly good news to me, news that I long to share with others?”


Someone has pointed out that although Romans is Paul’s most theological book, a treatise that has stretched the minds of the most brilliant theologians for centuries, he wrote it to a church made up of common people, many of whom were slaves. The Holy Spirit knew that we all need the message of Romans. We need to be stripped of our own righteousness so that we flee to Christ and His sacrifice as our only righteousness. Then, being justified by faith, we need to grow in righteous conduct and relationships. We need to grow to embrace and embody the gospel of God.

Application Questions

  1. “Has my heart been changed by personally experiencing God’s grace in Christ’s death and resurrection on my behalf?”
  2. “Do I view my daily life as not my own, but belonging to Jesus to serve Him?”
  3. “Is my heart in submission to what God has revealed here through His called apostle, Paul, especially on the doctrine of predestination?”
  4. “Do I increasingly view my life as set apart for the gospel?”
  5. “Is the good news from God and about God increasingly good news to me, news that I long to share with others?”

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 2: The Gospel of God: Described (Romans 1:2-4)

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The late, great British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones opened a sermon on Paul’s phrase, “the gospel of God,” by stating his fear that we are often so familiar with certain words, such as “gospel,” or so academic in our approach to them, that we are not thrilled and moved to the depths of our being by the wonder of it all (Romans: the Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 55). The gospel of God is the theme of Romans and Paul describes it here (1:2-4). I hope that God uses these verses to move us to deeper love for Him.

Romans 1:1-7 is one long and difficult to diagram sentence in the Greek text. Paul begins by identifying himself (1:1); then he describes what he calls “the gospel of God” (1:2-4); next he explains how that gospel goes to the nations (Gentiles) through Paul’s apostleship (1:5-6); and, finally (1:7), he greets the saints in Rome. We’ll only be able to cover verses 2-4 in this message.

Last week we saw (1:1) that the gospel comes to us from God. Paul did not make it up. God originated the gospel. And the gospel is all about God. It tells us how we can be rightly related to Him through His eternal Son, whom He sent. To continue, Paul shows:

The gospel of God was promised in the Scriptures and it centers in God’s Son.

1. The gospel of God was promised beforehand through God’s prophets in the holy Scriptures (1:2).

Why does Paul begin by stating that the gospel of God was that “which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures”? It’s because he wants to show that he didn’t make up the gospel. It wasn’t Paul’s idea. Rather, it comes to us right out of the Old Testament, which he refers to as the “holy Scriptures.”

God promised the gospel in prototype in Genesis 3:15, right after the fall, when He said that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. The gospel was implicit in the Old Testament sacrificial system, revealed most thoroughly to Moses but, I believe, even revealed from the outset to Cain and Abel. The wages of our sin is death, but God graciously would accept the blood sacrifice of an acceptable substitute. We see it again in type when God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. God intervened, of course, to provide the ram instead of Isaac. But He was showing what He would literally do by sending His own Son as the necessary offering for our sins. As Isaiah 53 makes plain, Jesus is the lamb of God who was wounded for our transgressions.

The record of Paul’s missionary journeys in the Book of Acts shows that when he was speaking to the Jews, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, trying to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah. For example, in Acts 13, after summarizing Old Testament history down to David (13:16-22), he concludes (Acts 13:23), “From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus.” In Acts 17:2-3, we read with reference to Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” (See, also, Acts 9:22; 28:23). It is important to see that the apostles did not make up the gospel. It comes to us from God’s promises through His prophets as revealed in all of the Old Testament.

Paul may have used the word “holy” to describe the Scriptures because some of his critics accused him of promoting licentiousness under the banner of grace (3:8; 6:1). They said that Paul set aside the Law of Moses and therefore opened the door for people to live as they pleased. Paul wants us to know that he viewed the Scriptures as holy because they help us lead holy lives. Also, the Scriptures are holy because they come to us from the holy God through His prophets. Paul had the highest regard for the Scriptures. Paul’s message, the gospel of God, was in line with and in fulfillment of the holy Scriptures. Rather than nullifying the Scriptures, he saw Jesus as fulfilling them (Rom. 3:31; 8:4).

Two other thoughts here: First, the word “Scriptures” means, “the writings.” God saw fit to have the prophets write down His revelation for their own and succeeding generations to read. He could have sent angels to every language group in every generation around the world to communicate His truth. Frankly, it would have been a lot easier than sending people who have to struggle to learn those languages and translate the Bible into them. But God chose to reveal Himself through the written Word. Wherever that written Word has gone, cultures have been transformed as people learned to read the Word of God and He opened their minds to its truths.

We tend to take it for granted that we have the entire Bible in our mother tongue. But do we devour it and treasure it as God’s holy Word to us? Do we pore over it, seeking to know the Creator through the means He has revealed Himself to us? If you don’t have a plan for reading through God’s Word regularly, I encourage you to begin now.

Second, God’s promise in the Old Testament to send the Savior is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Although from the human perspective, it took many centuries—400 years from the prophet Malachi to the birth of Jesus—God always keeps His promises in His time. No doubt there were scoffers then, as there are now, who mocked, “Where is the promise of the Savior?” But there were those, like the godly Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38), who were waiting expectantly for God to keep His promise. Although you may be tempted to despair at times, wondering, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4) persevere in faith. God always keeps His promises. Jesus is coming to judge this evil world and to bring full redemption to His people.

2. The gospel of God centers in the person of God’s Son (1:3-4).

Jesus is the center of the good news. As I emphasized in our recent series on evangelism, one basic principle when you’re sharing the gospel is to keep bringing the discussion back to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus asked the disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” That is the crucial question! If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Scriptures present Him to be, then He is Lord of all and we must bow before Him. In succinct form, Paul shows three things about Jesus: He is God’s eternal Son; He was born of the seed of David according to the flesh; and, He is now resurrected from the dead and exalted to the place of power and glory.

A. God’s Son existed eternally before He was born (1:3a).

Paul writes (1:3), “concerning His Son, who was born ….” In Romans 8:3, Paul says that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin.” So Jesus was God’s Son eternally before He was born of the virgin Mary. He shared the glory of the Father before the world existed (John 17:5). Jesus often spoke of the Father sending Him into this world (I counted 34 times in John; see John 4:34; 5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37 38).

So Jesus was not a normal man, who became the Son of God when the Holy Spirit came upon Him. God didn’t adopt Jesus as His Son at His baptism. Rather, He is the eternal Son of God, sent by the Father, who took on human flesh in the incarnation, and who has returned to the right hand of the Father to await the day of His glorious coming. In other words, Jesus is fully God and fully man. Any teaching that denies either Jesus’ full deity or full humanity is heresy. He is God’s unique Son, the eternal second person of the Trinity. So when the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as God’s Son, they are affirming His deity (see John 5:18).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (ibid., pp. 98-99) makes the point that you can have the teachings of Buddhism without the person of Buddha. He is not essential to that religion. The same can be said of all the world’s religions, except Christianity. Christianity is not just the teachings of Jesus. Rather, Christianity is Jesus Christ! You can’t just take His teachings and set Him aside. To be a Christian is to embrace and believe in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Any view that demotes Him from being God’s eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, is not biblical Christianity.

B. God’s Son was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (1:3b).

This phrase links back to verse 2, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises through His prophets in the holy Scriptures. God promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12-13; see Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5-6). Israel’s Messiah and Savior would be of the seed of David. But, David’s line on the throne over Israel ceased to exist at the time of the Babylonian captivity, 600 years before Christ.

But the New Testament writers clearly affirm that Jesus was born of the lineage of David (Matt. 1:1; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 2:4; 3:23-31; Acts 2:30; 13:22, 23, 32-34; Rom. 15:12; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). (See my sermon, “The Genealogy of Jesus,” on Luke 3:23-38.) Near the very end of Revelation (22:16), Jesus testifies to John, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Thus Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the son of David, who fulfills God’s promises to Israel.

This means that Jesus is not only fully God; He also is fully human. He shares in our human nature, except for our sinfulness (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 4:15). Thus Jesus could bear the penalty for our sins, since He had no sins of His own. He could be the perfect high priest, who offered Himself for human sins (Heb. 2:14-18). He can sympathize with our weaknesses, which encourages us to come to Him when we are tried and tempted. While I am not aware of any current serious threat to the Christian faith from those who deny Jesus’ full humanity, this was the battlefront of the early church. Even in the New Testament, the apostle John emphasizes this truth (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1; 4:2-3). Jesus was not an angelic or spirit being who seemed to be a man. He was a real man, born physically to Mary, of the lineage of David, according to the flesh.

This also means that Jesus is coming again to reign in power and glory from David’s throne. The Jews of Jesus’ day and down through history since then rejected Jesus because He did not conquer Israel’s enemies and set up His earthly kingdom. Instead, Caesar’s government crucified Him. How could a crucified Man be the Savior promised to reign on David’s throne?

But Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, told the men from Emmaus (Luke 24:26), “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then Luke reports (24:27), “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Paul uses the same line of argument in Acts 13:23-39.) While the Book of Revelation has much in it that is difficult to understand, the main idea is pretty clear: The risen Lord Jesus Christ is coming again in power and glory to judge the earth and to reign in righteousness. You’d better be on His side before He comes!

Thus by referring to “God’s Son,” Paul speaks of Jesus’ pre-incarnate glory as the eternal Son of God. By referring to Jesus as being “born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” he looks at His earthly humility, born of the virgin Mary in the humble stable. As a man, He was rejected by Israel and crucified by the proud Jewish leaders. Then Paul goes back to Jesus’ glory:

C. God’s Son was appointed to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness (1:4a, b).

Verse 4 has some difficult interpretive issues, which I’ll try to explain. First, the word “declared” is not translated that way anywhere else in the New Testament. It means, “appointed” or “determined” or “fixed” (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 42; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 47-48). This does not mean that Jesus became God’s Son through His resurrection or that He was shown to be at the resurrection what He was all along. Rather, He was elevated to a new level of power as the Son of God by virtue of His resurrection, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow (Phil. 2:9-11; see Schreiner, p. 42, and Moo, pp. 48-49). In other words, in view of the resurrection, Jesus went from being the eternal Son as Messiah (v. 3) to the eternal Son as Messiah and powerful, reigning Lord (v. 4; Moo, ibid.).

The other difficult question is what is the meaning of, “according to the Spirit of holiness,” which stands in contrast to “according to the flesh” in verse 3? Some argue that it refers to Jesus’ divine nature, in contrast to His human nature (v. 3). Or, some say that it refers to Jesus’ holy, obedient human spirit as He lived always to do the Father’s will. A third view is that it refers to the Holy Spirit’s role in raising Jesus from the dead. A fourth view is that it refers to the sending of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ exaltation.

Although good men hold to each view for good reasons, the last view in combination with the third is probably the best. Paul is looking at two phases in the ministry of Jesus. According to the flesh, as the descendant of David, Jesus lived in humility with His glory veiled during His earthly ministry. But by virtue of His resurrection from the dead and exaltation on high, Jesus inaugurated the new age of the Holy Spirit (Schreiner, pp. 43-44; Moo, p. 50; F. F. Bruce, Romans [IVP/ Eerdmans], p. 69). Also, implicit in the phrase, “resurrection from the dead,” is that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our future resurrection (as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 and Roman 8:11).

It’s interesting that in this opening description of the gospel, Paul does not explicitly mention Christ’s death, although it is implicit in mentioning His resurrection. Paul’s emphasis seems to be on Christ’s exaltation and glory. As Everett Harrison writes (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:15), “It was the infinite worth of the Son that made his saving work possible.”

Thus we’ve seen that the gospel of God centers in the person of His Son, who existed eternally, was born of the seed of David, and was appointed to be the Son of God with power by His resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness. Finally,

D. God’s Son is Jesus Christ our Lord (1:4c).

This phrase sums up the first three points. “Jesus” refers to His humanity, that He was born of the lineage of David to the virgin Mary. Jesus was His earthly name, which means “Yahweh saves.” The angel told Joseph before Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:21), “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus did not come primarily to help you have a happy, fulfilled life or to reach your full potential. He came to save you from your sins. If you do not know Jesus as your Savior from sin and judgment, then you do not know Him at all.

“Christ” means “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” and also points to Jesus as the descendant of David (Ps. 2:7-12; Ps. 110:1-2). He is uniquely God’s promised Anointed One, who will reign on David’s throne over God’s people. As such, He fulfilled all of God’s promises in the Old Testament. Paul uses “Christ” 379 times out of its 529 New Testament occurrences, including 65 times in Romans. It is because of Paul that “Christ” has become something of a name for our Lord (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], pp. 37-38).

“Lord” in Greek could be used as a polite term, like “sir.” But it also could be used of God. It is the word used to translate the divine name, “Yahweh,” in the Greek Old Testament. So when the early church adopted the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” they clearly meant, “Jesus is the Lord God.” Paul loved to use the complete phrase, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” He uses it 68 times, compared to only 19 in the rest of the New Testament (Morris, p. 48).

Matthew 22:41-42 records how Jesus asked His enemies whose son the Christ (Messiah) would be. They correctly answered, “The son of David.” Then Jesus said (22:43-45), “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet”’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” Jesus was showing them that their view of Messiah was inadequate. They merely thought of Him as David’s son, but in Psalm 110, David calls Him “Lord,” which means that He is God.

It is nonsense to think that somehow you can accept Jesus as your Savior, but not as your Lord. He is one being, “our Lord Jesus Christ.” He never gives us the option of saying, “I’d like to try Jesus as my Savior, but I think I’ll wait to make Him my Lord. I’d like to run my own life for a while.”

While at times William Barclay has some strange views, he at least got it right when he said (cited by Alan Ross, from a sermon Barclay gave at the Round Church, Oxford, England, accessed at:

It is now plain to see what a man ought to mean when he calls Jesus “Lord,” or when he speaks of the “Lord Jesus” or of the “Lord Jesus Christ.” When I call Jesus “Lord” I ought to mean that He is the absolute and undisputed owner and possessor of my life and that He is the Master whose servant and slave I must be all life long. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I think of Him as the Head of that great family in heaven and earth of which God is the Father and of which I through Him have become a member. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I think of Him as the help of the helpless and the guardian of those who have no other to protect them. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I look on Him as having absolute authority over all my life, all my thoughts, all my actions. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that He is the King and Emperor to whom I owe and give my constant homage, allegiance, and loyalty. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that for me He is the Divine One whom I must for ever worship and adore.


Is Jesus your Savior and Lord in that sense? The gospel of God is not primarily about you and how Jesus can help you find happiness and peace and fulfillment. Rather, it is from God and about God. It concerns His eternal Son, who humbled Himself to come from heaven and be born as a descendant of David according to the flesh. But after He offered Himself on the cross, God raised Him from the dead and He ascended into heaven. As Peter put it on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:36), “… know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”

It ultimately doesn’t come down to, “Can Jesus give me a happy life?” Rather, the crucial question is, “Who is Jesus?” Is He the eternal Son, risen from the dead, exalted as Lord? If so, then make sure that He is your Savior and Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the crucial question, “Who is Jesus?” rather than, “Will He make me happy?” How does this shape our witnessing?
  2. Why is it important to see that the gospel was promised beforehand in the Scriptures? What difference does this make?
  3. Some argue that you can accept Jesus as Savior without submitting to Him as Lord. Why is this wrong? What Scriptures would you use to counter this argument?
  4. List some of the practical benefits that come from affirming both Jesus’ deity and His humanity.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 3: The Gospel of God: To the Nations (Romans 1:5-7)

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There is a familiar story about three men who were working on a stone pile at a construction site. A curious passerby asked the first worker, “What are you doing?” He tersely replied, “Chiseling stone.”

Hoping for a better answer, he asked the second worker, “What are you doing?” “Bringing home a paycheck.”

Still wondering what was going on, he asked the third man, “Sir, what are you doing?” The man dropped his sledge hammer, stood erect, and his face brightened as he waved toward the site and exclaimed, “I’m building a great cathedral!”

All three men were doing the same job, but only the third man had the proper vision to make his job meaningful and to put his heart into it.

If someone asked how you serve the Lord, what would you say? Some might say, “I teach Sunday School.” Or, “I help clean up after church socials.” Or, “I serve as a greeter on Sunday mornings.” Or, “I lead a small group Bible study.”

All of those answers are good as far as they go, but a bigger perspective would be, “God has saved me and is using me to help build His church and to be His channel for taking the gospel to the nations.”

That was the apostle Paul’s perspective, as we see in Romans 1:5-7. God saved Paul from being a persecutor of the church and graciously called him as an apostle to help lay the foundation for the worldwide church, which Christ promised to build. God was using Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (or, nations) for His name’s sake. While none of us are called as apostles in the same sense that Paul was, the principles still apply:

God saves us and gives us spiritual gifts so that we will be His channels for the gospel to go to the nations.

You should see whatever you do to serve the Lord as fitting into that greater purpose of seeing His name glorified through the power of the gospel going to every people group. Maybe you’re thinking, “But I’m not cut out to be a missionary.” Maybe not, but as God gives you the greater vision of bringing about “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake” (1:5), there are many ways that you can help out in that cause.

Each of us can pray for the various people groups around the world and for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth. We can give from what the Lord has provided to support missions. We can seek to lead boys and girls and men and women to the Savior, and then instill in them a vision for taking the gospel to the nations. Maybe God will raise up a Hudson Taylor or a William Carey from your labors. Even if it’s a mundane job, like cleaning up after a church social or helping maintain our facilities, it’s helping to build the church. As long as the church keeps its focus on discipling the nations, then you’re part of the team effort.

In these verses, which are the tail end of a seven-verse sentence, Paul gives us five principles about salvation and service. The main thing to keep in mind is that God didn’t save you so that you could sit around and be happy or have a happy family. Happiness is a means to an end, namely, that the gospel would go out to the nations. That, in turn, is a means to the ultimate end of glorifying God. So if God has saved you, He wants you in some capacity to be part of His means of channeling the gospel to the nations.

1. God saves us by His grace and gives us gifts to be used in His service.

Paul writes, “through whom we have received grace and apostleship….” The plural “we” may refer to Paul, along with the other apostles. But the context does not seem to support that meaning, so probably Paul is using “we” in an editorial sense, to mean, “I” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 48).

Grace is one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses it 100 out of its 155 uses in the New Testament, including 24 times in Romans, the most of any book (Morris, ibid.). Paul received grace, which means, God’s unearned, unmerited favor. If you deserve it, it’s not grace. All you can do with grace is to receive it. The Christian life is not a matter of striving to do enough good deeds to pay for or outweigh your bad deeds, so that God owes you forgiveness. Rather, it’s a matter of coming to God as a guilty sinner, deserving of His wrath, and receiving His undeserved favor through Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty you deserved (see Rom. 4:4-5).

So before I go on, may I ask, “Have you received God’s grace through Jesus Christ?” Have you come to Him as a guilty sinner to receive His grace? It’s vital that you start there. You can’t serve God until you have received His grace.

God not only gives grace for salvation, but also grace for service. God sovereignly bestows various spiritual gifts on His people by His grace (Rom. 12:3-8). Paul did not volunteer to be an apostle, much less an apostle to the Gentiles. Rather, God appointed him to that task (Acts 22:10; Gal. 1:1; 2:7-9). The word apostle means “sent one,” and it is used in the New Testament to refer to the twelve and to Paul in the narrow sense of those who had seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1), who performed confirming miracles (2 Cor. 12:12), and who laid the foundation for the church (Eph. 2:20). As such, they were given special authority over the churches (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). When those men died, there were no successors with apostolic authority. Their authority is passed on to us in the New Testament.

The word apostle also is applied to Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), James (the Lord’s brother, Gal. 1:19; 2:9), perhaps Silas (1 Thess. 2:6), and to Andronicus and Junias (or, Junia [fem.]; Rom. 16:7; see also, 2 Cor. 8:23, “messengers”). These workers were sent out by the churches for various ministries. In this limited sense, missionaries today are “sent ones.” But the foundational gift of apostle passed off the scene when the twelve and Paul died.

We will look at spiritual gifts more in Romans 12. But for now, let me just say that if God has saved you, He has given you a spiritual gift to use in serving Him. Peter (1 Pet. 4:11) divides them into two broad categories of speaking gifts and serving gifts. While I am not a fan of spiritual gift inventories, I would encourage you to figure out what God has equipped you to do in His service and get involved in serving Him. There are no bench-warmers in the body of Christ!

2. God saves us and gives us gifts to bring about the obedience of faith in others.

Paul continues by saying that he has received grace and apostleship “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” There is debate about how to interpret the phrase, “obedience of faith.” Some say that it refers to the obedience that springs from faith in Christ. Others say that it means that obedience consists in faith. That is, God commands you to believe the gospel, so not to believe is to disobey.

I think that Douglas Moo is correct when he says that the two words are mutually interpreting (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 52-53): “obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience…. Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience—for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord—and to an obedience that could never be divorced from faith—for we can obey Jesus as Lord only when we have given ourselves to him in faith.” (See, also, Rom. 10:16, where “heed” means, “obey”; 15:18; and 16:26.) Genuine faith is obedient faith. Genuine obedience stems from faith (14:23).

This has two implications for us all, whether we’re gifted as evangelists or not. First, when we present the gospel we must be clear that the call to trust in Christ as Savior is also a call to follow Him as Lord. There is not the option of believing in Christ as your Savior, but having the freedom to continue living in disobedience to His commands (John 3:36).

Second, to be a part of calling others to the obedience of faith requires that we live in obedience to Christ. We must practice what we preach. If you are not living in obedience to Christ, please don’t try to share the gospel with others. Your life will send a confusing message to them. For example, I’ve seen young women who profess to know Christ, but they’re sleeping with their boyfriends. Yet they’re also trying to tell them about Jesus, hoping that they will get saved so that they can have a Christian marriage. It doesn’t work! It sends a mixed message! If the young woman truly knows Christ, she needs to repent of her sin and break off the relationship with her unsaved boyfriend. Our witness for Christ must flow out of a life of obedience to Christ.

3. God saves us and gives us gifts to take the gospel to the nations (Gentiles).

When Paul uses the Greek word, ethne (1:5), he probably means Gentiles as opposed to the Jews. This does not mean that he did not preach to the Jews. The Book of Acts shows that his custom was to go first to the Jewish synagogues. When they rejected the gospel, he then preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44-48). But it’s significant that this formerly ethnocentric, proud Jewish Pharisee would get saved and then devote his life to preaching to the Gentiles, even though it resulted in great personal persecution.

Paul’s focus was all the Gentiles. He could not rest as long as some of the Gentiles had not heard the good news. Bear in mind that the Gentiles to whom Paul preached were raw pagans. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul catalogs some of their former sins: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16)!

This means that no matter how pagan your neighbor or co-worker or fellow student may be, no matter how degrading his sin, no matter how enslaving his substance abuse is, God is able to save him from his sin and to make him a new creature in Christ. He does it through the gospel. So your task is to use your testimony, your spiritual gifts, and your verbal witness to share the gospel with the pagans around you. And, as the Lord raises up workers go to foreign cultures and to cross cultural barriers, we at home need to support them with prayer, finances, and in other practical ways, so that the gospel goes to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

Thus, God saves us by His grace and gives us gifts to be used in His service. The aim of our service is to bring about the obedience of faith through the gospel among all nations. But, we need to keep the ultimate motive in view:

4. God saves us and gives us gifts to bring glory to the name of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s aim in bringing about the obedience of the faith among the Gentiles was, “for His name’s sake.” Name stands for the person and all of his attributes. It is because of who Jesus is—the eternal Son of God, who took on human flesh as a descendant of David, according to God’s promises in the Old Testament, who offered Himself on the cross as our substitute, who was raised from the dead and is now exalted on high—that Paul endured beatings, plots against his life, and many other hardships to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul’s ultimate goal was to glorify the name of the Savior who gave Himself to redeem rebellious sinners.

This principle is so important to keep in mind in your service for Jesus Christ. It’s easy to fall into the trap of serving Christ for personal fulfillment. It makes you feel good to help others. It feeds your pride when others tell you how kind or generous or caring you are. But then someone criticizes you because you didn’t meet his expectations or you neglected to do something in the right way. Or you don’t receive the thanks that you thought you deserved. Your feelings get hurt and your pride is deflated. But, also, your motive for serving gets exposed. You weren’t serving for His name’s sake. You were serving for your name’s sake!

After 33 years now as a pastor, I’ll let you in on a secret: If you serve Christ, you will be criticized. Your labors will often go unnoticed. Your motives will be attacked. Your character will be slandered. Why should you keep on serving when people treat you like that? You keep on serving “for His name’s sake.” Finally,

5. God’s saving us and giving us gifts is based on His calling us and setting His love on us.

Paul’s emphasis in all of verses 1-7 is not on what we do for God, but rather on what God has done for us. The basis for any service for Christ is that God has effectually called us to belong to Christ, He has set His love on us, and He has set us apart unto Himself, bestowing His grace and peace on us. Note five things:

A. God calls us to belong to Jesus Christ.

After mentioning the Gentiles (1:5), Paul continues (1:6), “among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ.” The genitive (“of”) is probably possessive. Throughout Scripture, God the Father is the one who calls us to salvation (Rom. 8:30; 2 Tim. 1:9). For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:9 Paul writes, “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Here, He calls us to belong to Jesus Christ.

“Called” in the New Testament epistles always refers to God’s effectual call to salvation. Douglas Moo explains (ibid., p. 54), “What is meant is not an ‘invitation,’ but the powerful and irresistible reaching out of God in grace to bring people into his kingdom.” Paul makes this clear in Romans 8:30, “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” The entire chain of salvation is God’s doing, so that no one may boast in himself, but rather, only in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

To be a Christian means that God has intervened in your life, calling you out of darkness and into His kingdom of light, where you now belong to Christ and have fellowship with Him. Paul often refers to our new standing as being “in Christ.” We are totally identified with Him. This implies a fundamental break with the world, where we no longer love the world and live for the same things that the world lives for (1 John 2:15-17). We now are those who have been called to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.

B. God calls us because He has set His love on us.

Paul writes (1:7) “to all who are beloved of God in Rome.” Perhaps you’re thinking, “But doesn’t God love everyone?” Yes, but He has a special love for His chosen bride. I’m commanded to love every Christian woman as my sister in Christ, but I have a special love for just one: my bride and wonderful wife, Marla. Even so, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). The foundation for everything that we do for Christ is that He “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

C. God calls us as saints.

“Saints” never refers to a special level of believers, who tower above the average. Rather, it refers to all believers. In fact, Paul uses this same phrase, “called as saints,” in his opening greeting to the Corinthian church, with all of its problems (1 Cor. 1:2). The word means, “holy ones,” or “set apart ones.” God calls us to be set apart from this evil world unto Himself.

Robert Haldane points out that there is an order here (cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:67), “They were saints because they were called, and they were called because they were beloved of God.” In other words, God didn’t call them and set His love on them because of their good deeds. Rather, He called them and loved them and set them apart to Himself for good deeds. The result of God’s calling them as saints is that they live as saints, set apart for God and His service. If you know Christ as your Savior, you are a saint, set apart unto God by His calling you.

D. God calls us to live in a sinful world.

Paul writes “to all who are beloved of God in Rome” (1:7). Rome was the capital of the huge empire that stretched from England to Persia. The Roman emperor was worshiped as a god. Rome was the center of commerce, wealth, power, and status. It represented all that is worldly at its apex. That is where these saints lived and where they were to reach their fellow Gentiles. In Revelation 2:13, the Lord addresses the church in Pergamum, saying, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name ….”

In the same way, we live in the midst of a flagrantly sinful city, where even the “welcome to Flagstaff” signs proclaim our “inclusive community,” a code phrase that means, “your sinful lifestyle is welcome here!” God calls us to live as saints in this city, holding fast to Jesus’ name, and holding forth the word of life (Phil. 2:16).

E. God calls us to receive grace and peace from Him as our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

This phrase is a greeting, but it’s more than a greeting. It stems from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26), “The Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.” It also combines the usual Greek greeting, Charein, which in sound, although not in meaning, was close to charis, grace, with the Hebrew shalom, peace. The two words sum up the gospel: “Grace is the cause and Peace is the effect” (W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 49). Being saved by God’s grace, we now have peace with Him through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:1-14). Our new standing with God as recipients of His grace and peace is the basis on which we take His good news to the evil city where we live and beyond to the nations.


Several centuries ago in a mountain village in Europe a nobleman wondered what legacy he should leave to his townspeople. He finally decided to build them a church. No one saw the complete plans until the church was finished. When they gathered inside, they marveled at its beauty and craftsmanship. But then someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will it be lighted?”

The nobleman pointed to some brackets on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship. He explained, “Each time you are here the area where you are seated will be lighted. Each time you are absent, that area will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

God also wants us to carry the light of the gospel out of the church, into the dark world around us (Phil. 2:15-16). He has saved us and given us spiritual gifts so that we will be a part of building His great cathedral, His church, among every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. So whatever you do to serve Christ, do it in view of that greater purpose, for His name’s sake.

Application Questions

  1. Why is salvation the necessary foundation for service? Should churches allow unsaved people to serve? Why/why not?
  2. Why is saving faith necessarily obedient faith? Some argue that this confuses the gospel. Agree/disagree? Why?
  3. How can we guard against serving for some selfish reason, rather than for Christ’s sake? What happens when we don’t?
  4. Why is it important to emphasize God’s calling and His special love as the basis for our service? What can happen practically if we forget this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Spiritual Gifts

Lesson 4: Serving Saints (Romans 1:8-15)

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Recently I received an email from David and Denise Moore, who serve with Wycliffe in Malaysia, saying that a fellow Wycliffe missionary’s sister and her family had been in a bad accident near Flagstaff. They asked if I could visit them in the hospital and if we as a church could help with any needs.

Marla and I went as quickly as we could to the hospital. We found out that the family was on vacation, driving west on I-40 near Ash Fork, when a car in the left lane blew a tire and swerved in front of them, forcing their motor home over an embankment, where it rolled many times. Miraculously, everyone survived, even the wife who was thrown from the vehicle, although she and their son were pretty banged up.

They told us how well the body of Christ in Flagstaff had come to their aid. I left them my contact info and asked them to call if they needed anything else, but they said that I was the third pastor to visit them and that the other two churches had already largely provided for their family. They said, “The body of Christ is alive and well in this city!”

The wife also told us about an atheist friend of her husband, whom they had known for a long time. He had seen on other occasions that wherever this family went, they encountered other believers who treated them like family. This atheist couldn’t believe that even though the family didn’t know a soul in Flagstaff, when they had this accident they suddenly had an extended network of people coming to their aid. What this atheist observed is what we see in our text, namely, serving saints.

Paul is still introducing his letter to the Romans, most of whom he has never met. He knew that due to his enemies, he was sometimes portrayed as a radical who was teaching all sorts of dangerous things (Rom. 3:8; Acts 17:6; 21:28). But he longed to visit these fellow believers in Rome and share together in the things of God. So he has the delicate task of explaining to these mostly unknown Christians, some of whom may have heard negative things about him, who he is and why he wants to visit them and preach the gospel there.

So he shares how he has heard of their faith and how frequently he prays for them. He shares his heart about wanting to come and spend time with them, both strengthening their faith and also being encouraged himself by them in the things of the gospel. He lets them know that he has often desired to come, but thus far has been prevented. But now he hopes to come and find opportunities to preach there. So Paul wants to use his gifts to serve these people he does not yet know, and he wants to benefit from them using their gifts to serve him, as together they labor to see the gospel expand in Rome. This little snapshot of Paul and the church at Rome gives us a picture of serving saints. The overall lesson is,

God wants all whom He has saved to be serving saints.

I’m taking the theme from Paul’s words in verse 9, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit ….” But it’s obvious that Paul is not the only one in these verses who is serving. He begins by mentioning how he has heard all over about the faith of the Roman believers. He also says that he expects not only to minister to the Romans, but also to be ministered unto by them (1:12). As we saw in verse 7, the believers in Rome were “called as saints.” Thus all believers are to be serving saints.

There are four lessons here: (1) Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8). (2) Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10). (3) Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry (1:11-13). (4) Serving saints are debtors to all people to proclaim the gospel to them (1:14-15).

1. Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8).

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Paul says, “First,” but there isn’t any “second.” He probably just means, “to begin with.” “My God” shows that Paul’s relationship with God was personal. Paul knew God as his God. If you do not know God personally through faith in Jesus Christ, then you are only into religion. True Christianity is not primarily a matter of religion, where you go to church, go through various rituals, and keep certain moral standards. True Christianity is a matter of coming to know the living God personally through His Son as you trust in Him to forgive your sins and give you eternal life (Phil. 3:1-10).

Paul thanks God “through Jesus Christ” because Christ mediates all of God’s blessings to us. It is through Christ that we have access to God in prayer. Paul is thankful to God “because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Paul didn’t thank the Romans for their faith, as if it came from them. Rather, he thanked God, because He brought these former pagans in that corrupt city of Rome to saving faith in Jesus Christ (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 52). Salvation is God’s gift.

Paul heard others all over the Roman Empire talking about the faith of the Roman Christians. This shows that they were a witnessing church. They didn’t have or need a marketing strategy or an advertising campaign. Rather, they had vibrant testimonies of how God had changed their lives through the gospel. As people heard of what God was doing in Rome and talked to others, the word spread, so that Paul heard about them, even though he had yet to visit Rome. And so his heart rejoiced.

Faith in Jesus Christ is the essential thing: “Without faith, it is impossible to please Him [God]” (Heb. 11:6). Paul often couples faith with love (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 1:15; 6:23; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:5). Love for God and for one another is to be the main fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ. But faith in Him is the foundation, because it is through faith that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts and produce His love in us (Gal. 5:22). Bringing it down to a personal level, does your home demonstrate faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and love for God and one another?

It is significant that the Roman church was not the result of Paul’s labors, but that didn’t matter to Paul. He rejoiced to hear of God working, no matter who was responsible for it (Phil. 1:15-18). He wasn’t out to build a name or empire for himself. Even so, if we hear that the gospel is spreading, even if we had nothing to do with it, we should rejoice, thank God, and be encouraged that the gospel is taking root elsewhere. Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread.

2. Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10).

“For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.”

The word translated “serve” means, “worshipful service.” It suggests that all of our service should be offered up to the Lord. It should be “for His name’s sake” (1:5). Paul adds that he serves God “in my spirit.” He means that his service comes from the heart or the inner man, which only God sees. This gets down to our motive for serving. Do we serve for the affirmation that we receive from others? Or, do we serve to please God, who knows our hearts?

This also addresses the methods that we use in our service. Do we get them from the business world or from worldly psychology, where they have been proven to yield results? “Just plug in these marketing techniques and your church will grow!” Or, do we use spiritual methods that come from God’s Word? The world often scoffs at such methods, but, as Paul explains (1 Cor. 1:27), “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”

The gospel is such a spiritual “method.” Paul says that he serves God in his spirit “in the preaching of the gospel of His Son.” He states (1:16) that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel has repeatedly transformed sinners like Paul, a persecutor of the church, into godly saints who exemplify the fruit of the Spirit.

And yet today, many of the church growth “experts” say that you can’t preach the old-fashioned gospel about sin, God’s righteous judgment, repentance, and salvation through faith in Christ’s blood. That sort of thing will scare off the people you’re trying to reach. So we need to tone it down and share about how Jesus can build your self-esteem and give you a happy family and personal success. But it is the simple message of the gospel that God uses to save sinners.

Prayer is also a spiritual method. Weak people, overwhelmed by problems way beyond their ability to solve, cry out to the living God and He answers them! Again, the modern church is much more into techniques than into prayer. Seminars abound on the latest techniques for church growth. There is a proper place for using wise techniques, but the danger is, we then sing the praises of the techniques for how well they worked. God’s way is (Ps. 50:15), “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.”

But why does Paul call God as his witness with regard to his unceasing prayers about coming to Rome? First, some of Paul’s enemies may have told the Roman Christians, “Paul doesn’t really care about you. He doesn’t even know you!” So Paul wants them to know that before God, his prayers for them are sincere and frequent. Also, Paul’s immediate plans, as he will share later (15:25), were to go first to Jerusalem with the gift for the poor saints there. If he is delayed there, again his critics could say, “He talks a good line about wanting to come here, but it’s all just talk!” So Paul wants the Romans to know that they are often in his prayers and that he prays often that God would open a way for him to go there.

Paul’s words here reveal several helpful lessons about prayer. First, even Paul had delays and frustrations with regard to the answers to his prayers. He prayed often that he might be able to go to Rome, and even often made plans to go, but thus far his prayers and plans had been frustrated (1:13). Sometimes we think that something must be wrong with our prayer life if we don’t get instant answers. But Paul didn’t get a quick answer and when he finally did get an answer, it wasn’t in the way that he had prayed.

That leads to a second lesson: Often God answers through delays or round-about ways that we don’t envision when we pray. Paul prayed that he could go to Rome. God’s way was not a straight path. First, Paul got arrested in Jerusalem, falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the Temple. Then, he spent more than two years in custody in Caesarea because the governor was hoping for a bribe and he wanted to please the Jews (Acts 24:26-27). Although he should have been freed, Paul had to appeal to Caesar to save his life (Acts 25:9-12). Then, en route to Rome, he was shipwrecked and spent the winter on Malta. Finally, he got to Rome as a prisoner. It wasn’t exactly, “I prayed and presto, God did just as I asked!”

A third lesson on prayer is that we must always submit our prayers to the will of God (1:10). There is a mystery here that I often do not understand. The sovereign will of God often includes evil things that are against His revealed moral will, although God is not responsible for the evil. But He uses the evil to accomplish His greater purpose. We should pray against evil, and yet be subject to God’s will in things that we do not understand.

In this instance, Paul went to Jerusalem in spite of the Holy Spirit’s warning that he would be arrested. He also rejected the pleas of his friends that he not go there. When he insisted upon going, they said, “The will of the Lord be done!” (See Acts 21:11-14.) Although many would disagree, I think that Paul should have heeded this warning from God. But, he went to Jerusalem, was arrested because of the false accusations of evil men, and spent two years in custody because of the sins of a pagan governor. God worked through all of these things to bring Paul to Rome, thus answering his prayers!

So the lesson for us is to pray, but always be subject to God’s will. If He doesn’t answer exactly as we prayed or in the timing that we expected, we must still be in submission to His will, acknowledging that His ways are not our ways.

James Boice (Romans [Baker], 1:87-89) suggests three reasons why sometimes our perfectly proper prayers go unanswered. First, “Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are.” Paul wanted to go to Rome to minister to these saints, but they were able to do quite well without him in the meanwhile. While perhaps Paul didn’t need to learn this lesson through God’s delay in answering, often we do. We are not indispensible in God’s program!

Second, God may not answer our prayers because “He may have other work for us to do.” Paul’s ministry in Greece, Asia, and even in Caesarea, where he preached the gospel to Felix, Festus, and others, was a part of God’s sovereign plan for Paul. If God has you stalled in a frustrating situation, serve Him there!

Third, Dr. Boice says, “There may be spiritual warfare of which you and I are unaware.” The answer to Daniel’s prayers was delayed because of a conflict between a holy angel and an evil demon (Dan. 10:1-14)! Paul explains that our conflict is against unseen spiritual powers, and that prayer is a chief weapon to use in the battle (Eph. 6:10-20). So we often do not know why our prayers are not answered quickly in the way that we envision. But we must trust in and submit to God’s sovereign will.

Thus, serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8). They serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10).

3. Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry (1:11-13).

“For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.”

Someone has pointed out that it’s good that Paul was hindered from going to Rome sooner, because we now have the Letter to the Romans due to his delay (Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 53). These verses reveal Paul’s heart for these believers and the aim of his intended visit there. I can only touch on five lessons about effective ministry.

First, the atmosphere for effective ministry is warm personal relationships. Paul longed to see these saints. He often expresses his heartfelt desire to be with other believers (1 Thess. 2:8, 11, 17; 3:1, 5, 6, 10). While Paul couldn’t begin to be close with every believer in Rome, his heart of love and concern for them all still comes through.

Second, the aim of effective ministry is to see others established in their faith. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, who were new in their faith and going through some intense trials, “for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8).

Third, the sphere of effective ministry is spiritual gifts. Paul wanted to go to Rome to impart some spiritual gift to them (1:11). What does he mean? There are several views, but in 1 Corinthians 12:11, Paul says that the Holy Spirit distributes gifts to each person “just as He wills.” So it’s not likely that Paul had the ability to impart various spiritual gifts to others. Rather, he probably means that he wants to impart the gift of his apostolic understanding of the gospel, which we have in the Book of Romans (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 54; and Martyn Lloyd Jones, Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 226). As Paul exercised his gift of teaching, imparting especially his understanding of justification by faith alone (Romans 3-5), these believers would be more established in their faith.

Fourth, the spirit of effective ministry is mutual encouragement. Paul slightly corrects his comment about imparting some spiritual gift to them by adding (1:12), “that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Even though Paul was such a knowledgeable, gifted man, the ministry would not be all one way, from Paul to them. He quickly acknowledges that he looks forward to being encouraged by their faith as well. Have you ever gone to visit someone in the hospital, to cheer them up, but you’ve come away ministered to by their faith? That’s happened to me many times.

Fifth, the result of effective ministry is to bear fruit. Paul wanted to obtain some fruit among them, as he had among the rest of the Gentiles (1:13). He is mainly referring to new converts, who would come to faith under his preaching in Rome. But the word fruit can refer to any blessing or benefit that comes through God’s working through us. Our aim should always be to glorify God by bearing much fruit (John 15:8).

There is a final lesson on service here:

4. Serving saints are debtors to all people, to proclaim the gospel to them (1:14-15).

“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”

The literal rendering of “I am under obligation” is, “I am a debtor.” By “Greeks and barbarians,” Paul means “all nations,” since the Greeks viewed every non-Greek as a barbarian. By “wise and foolish,” Paul means “every level of society, from the most educated to the uneducated.” In other words, every human being needs to hear the gospel, because all have sinned and Jesus is the Savior of every sinner who will repent and believe in Him.

Being a debtor has been illustrated as being a person who has been cured of a deadly disease. You can tell others where to find the cure. And in this case, they don’t have to go anywhere or pay any money. The cure is available and free for the taking. When you meet a sinner (that’s everyone!), you owe it to them to tell them about the cure. And telling them should not be a difficult burden. Paul was eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome, because he knew that it is God’s remedy for sin to everyone who believes.

Paul was eager to preach the gospel to the saints in Rome. He was referring not only to evangelism, but also to the application of the gospel to those who have believed. The gospel has much practical application for the saints, as Paul will show in chapters 12-16.


Thus, serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread. Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer. Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry. And, serving saints are debtors to all people to proclaim the gospel to them. Has God called you as a saint, one set apart to Him? Then He has called you to serve in these ways for His name’s sake.

Application Questions

  1. Others were proclaiming the faith of the Roman Christians. What would others proclaim about your Christian life?
  2. How do we determine whether our methods in Christian work are acceptable, since not all methods are given in the Bible?
  3. How can we know whether to keep praying when our prayers do not seem to be answered? What principles apply?
  4. How can the concept of being a debtor to lost people help us to share the gospel more often?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Fellowship, Spiritual Gifts

Lesson 5: The Gospel: God’s Power for Salvation (Romans 1:16-17)

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James Boice wrote that these verses, Romans 1:16-17, “are the most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity” (Romans [Baker], 1:103). As you probably know, it was Martin Luther’s wrestling with and finally coming to understand verse 17 that transformed his life and led to the Protestant Reformation. So these verses have had an incalculable effect on world history and they will have a profound effect on your life personally if God opens your eyes to the truths in them.

Before we look at these verses in detail, we need to see the flow of Paul’s reasoning. He begins verse 16 with the word for, which connects it with verse 15. There Paul said, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Why? “For I am not ashamed of the gospel….” Why? “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” How is this gospel the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Is this a new idea that Paul thought up? No, he cites Habakkuk 2:4, “as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

At the outset, we may wonder why Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” It is a figure of speech called litotes, where through understatement the affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. For example, if you say, “he’s not a bad athlete,” you mean, “he’s a pretty good athlete.” So when Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he means, “I glory in the gospel. I’m proud of the gospel.”

But why does he express it this way? Well, there were many reasons that a first century Roman might feel a bit uncomfortable about this Jewish man coming to a sophisticated city like Rome to preach about a Galilean carpenter-prophet who was executed by the Roman government in the most humiliating manner possible, by being crucified. After all, this was Rome, the capital of the civilized world! Your message had better appeal to the educated or it won’t fly here! Your message needs to offer political solutions to the pressing needs of the empire or it will not gain a hearing here! It had better offer some answers to the massive problems of slavery, greed, lust, and violence, or the people in Rome won’t listen!

But Paul’s main message did not directly address these issues. His main message focused on the main need of every human being, whether the most religious Jew or the most educated, worldly, immoral Greek—the need to be reconciled to the holy God. How can I be right before God? As we’ve seen, Paul’s theme in Romans is God and the good news that comes from God, how sinners can be delivered from His righteous judgment and reconciled to Him. This is called salvation. Here Paul tells us…

Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it and proclaim it boldly.

1. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

To proclaim the gospel boldly or unashamedly, we must believe it. But to believe it, we must understand it. The gospel is all about salvation. So I want to explore five statements about salvation that stem from our text.

A. Salvation is the main need of every person.

This anticipates the point that Paul makes from 1:18 through 3:20, where he shows that all have sinned and thus fall under God’s righteous condemnation. Because all have sinned, whether the religious Jew or the worldly Greek, all are alienated from God, who is absolutely righteous. Thus all are under God’s wrath, as Paul immediately explains (1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

Salvation refers to being rescued from God’s wrath and judgment that we deserve because of our sin. It means being delivered from the penalty of sin, which happens the moment we believe; being delivered from the power of sin, as we grow in godliness; and, being delivered from the very presence of sin when we stand blameless in His presence in glory (Jude 24). John Piper argues that Paul’s main focus here is this future aspect of salvation (see his sermons on this text on Salvation also has many positive aspects, such as enjoying a reconciled relationship with God (Rom. Rom. 5:1), and receiving all of the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 1:3; 3:8).

But if we think that we need to “sell” the gospel by glossing over the negative aspects of salvation and focusing only on the positive side of it, we fall into the sin of being ashamed of the gospel. We do not need God’s salvation and Christ did not need to die on the cross if we’re all basically good people who just need a little encouragement to be right with God. We do not need a crucified Savior if our main need is to polish our self-esteem and learn some helpful hints for happy living.

We need a Savior who was crucified for our sins because we all by nature are ungodly rebels who are under God’s righteous wrath. This is offensive to the natural man, but if we pull our punches on this point, we miss the very heart of the gospel. The gospel is only good news to the person who realizes that he needs to be saved or he will eternally perish.

B. Salvation requires the very power of God.

The gospel does not tell people about the power of God. Rather, it is “the power of God for salvation.” This means that salvation is not something that sinners can attain by their own efforts or good works. If that were so, Christ did not need to die on the cross. Salvation is not a joint project, where God has done His part and now you must contribute your part. You may be thinking, “But don’t I need to believe?” Yes, as we will see in a moment, salvation is received and sustained by faith alone from start to finish. But saving faith, which includes repentance, is not something that sinners can produce on their own. It is the gift of God, so that we will not boast (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Acts 11:18; 13:48).

It is crucial to see that salvation does not depend on a human decision, but on the very power of God. It requires that God impart new life to a dead sinner, something that is impossible for men to bring about. When Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), the bystanders may have thought, “Is He crazy? He’s speaking to a dead man who has been in the tomb for four days!” But the power of God through the word of Jesus imparted life to a dead man. The gospel is like that.

When the rich young ruler walked away from eternal life, Jesus commented to the disciples (Matt. 19:23, 25, 26), “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were “very astonished and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Jesus replied, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). It requires the very power of God. The gospel is not helpful advice that a person may decide to try out. It is the very power of God imparting new life and salvation to those who were dead in their sins and under God’s just wrath and condemnation. So, as Thomas Schreiner puts it (Romans [Baker], p. 60), “The preaching of the Word does not merely make salvation possible but effects salvation in those who are called.”

C. Salvation demands that the righteousness of God be upheld and applied to the guilty sinner.

In verse 17, Paul explains why the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed….” Before we go on, note that the gospel is not the result of the religious genius of Paul or the other apostles. Rather, it is revealed to us by God through His Son. In Galatians 1:15, Paul explains his own conversion by saying, “But when God who had set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me ….” So the gospel comes to us by revelation from God that centers in His Son.

Also, note (as Bishop Moule points out, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 32), Paul does not lead off with the love of God in the gospel, but rather with the righteousness of God. Certainly, the gospel displays God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8). But the love of God is not a stumbling block or foolishness to sinners (1 Cor. 1:23). They rather like the idea! If God is loving, but not so righteous, then it’s easy to view Him as our good buddy in the sky. But the righteousness of God presents a problem, because we all know that we have sinned. If God is righteous and we are not, then we need a Savior.

But what does Paul mean when he says that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed”? There are three main options. First, he may mean that God’s attribute of righteousness, the fact that He always does what is right, is revealed to us in the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 298) strongly rejects this meaning here, because he says that then the gospel would not be good news, but rather terrifying news. But with some fear and trembling, I must disagree slightly with Lloyd-Jones. I agree that this is not Paul’s primary meaning here, but if a person has no concept of the absolute righteousness of God, then he does not understand his precarious and frightening position of being under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner (Rom. 1:18). So the gospel reveals God’s righteous character, which shows us our desperate need for salvation. It should drive us to the cross.

Second, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul may be referring to God’s saving power in being faithful to His covenant promises. The Old Testament often refers to God’s righteousness as His salvation of His people (Ps. 71:2; 98:2; Isa. 46:13; Schreiner, p. 66, lists many other references).

Third, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul is referring to the righteousness that comes from God, which He gives to those who believe. F. F. Bruce (Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 73) argues that in the Old Testament, which forms the main background of Paul’s thought and language, righteousness is not so much a moral quality as rather a legal status. He says (p. 74), “God himself is righteous, and those men and women are righteous who are ‘in the right’ in relation to God and his law.” He adds,

When, therefore, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, it is revealed in a twofold manner. The gospel tells us first how men and women, sinners as they are, can come to be ‘in the right’ with God and second how God’s personal righteousness is vindicated in the very act of declaring sinful men and women ‘righteous’.

This third meaning is Paul’s primary thought in verse 17. The gospel reveals how sinners may be righteous or justified before God by faith. We know that this is his meaning by comparing the parallels between Romans 1:17 and 3:21-26. There we read,

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel in that He can grant right standing to sinners because His Son met the righteous requirement of His perfect Law and died to pay the penalty that sinners deserve. Thus sinners are not justified by their own righteousness by keeping the Law (gal. 3:11), but rather by God imputing the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. Paul states this plainly in Philippians 3, where he contrasts his former attempts to be righteous by keeping the Law with his present experience with Christ, where he says (Phil. 3:9), “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Salvation upholds God’s righteousness by applying it to the sinner who believes. That leads to the fourth point about salvation:

D. Salvation is by faith from start to finish.

Paul mentions believing or faith four times in these two verses: “to everyone who believes”; “from faith to faith”; and, “the righteous man shall live by faith.” If salvation comes through faith plus good works (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches and all of the cults teach), then it is not good news, because you could never know whether you have piled up enough good works to qualify. But if God declares guilty sinners to be righteous or justified the instant they believe, that is good news!

But, we need to be clear on several things here. First, saving faith in Christ is not a general belief that He is the Savior. The demons believe that, but they are not saved. Rather, saving faith has three elements. First, with the mind we must understand the content of the gospel: who Jesus is, what His death on the cross means, and that He was raised from the dead. Second, we must have a heart response to the truth of the gospel, where we agree that it is true and our agreement causes our hearts to be sorrowful about our sin, but also to rejoice in the free offer of God’s grace. Third, saving faith includes commitment to Christ, where we trust in Him and His death on the cross as our only hope of eternal life and we follow Him as Lord. Saving faith is not a work that we do, but rather simply receiving all that God offers to us in Christ. It is the hand that receives the free gift of God.

Second, we need to understand what Paul means by the phrase, “from faith to faith.” Commentators offer many different views, but I think Paul is emphasizing the centrality of faith in receiving the benefits of the gospel (Schreiner, p. 72). The NIV translates, “by faith from first to last.” We receive the gospel by faith and we go on living by faith.

This is supported by the fact that “believes” (1:16) is a present participle, bringing out the fact that saving faith is not a single event, but rather an ongoing, lifelong process. We are justified the instant we believe, but as we go on believing the gospel, God keeps revealing to us the fact that we have right standing before Him on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Faith applies the imputed righteousness of Christ to us so that we increasingly rejoice in Christ alone as our only hope of eternal life. We never come to a place where we can trust in our good works as sufficient for or even contributing in any way to our salvation.

Third, we need to understand how Paul uses Habakkuk 2:4, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” He uses it partly to show that his gospel is not a new idea that he thought up. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk confirms the truth that righteousness can only be attained on the basis of faith.

Scholars debate whether the quote should be translated, “the righteous man shall live by faith,” or, “the one who is righteous by faith shall live.” The first view would emphasize that those who are righteous are characterized by a life of faith, whereas the second view would say that those who by faith are righteous shall live, which means, be saved. While there are impressive scholars on both sides, I think that in light of the context, Paul is using the quote to say, “The one who is righteous (justified) by faith will live, that is, be saved” (see Bruce, p. 76; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 71-72; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 76-79).

E. Salvation is individual and personal, not corporate and national.

Paul says that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” He could have said, “for the Jews [plural] first and also to the Greeks [plural],” but he put it in the singular. Salvation is an individual and personal matter. Being a member of the Jewish race will not get you saved, even though the Jews were God’s chosen people. Being an American or a member of a Christian family will not get you saved. You must personally believe in Christ.

By “the Jew first,” Paul means that the gospel came first in history to the Jews. God chose Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob as the race to which He revealed His salvation. It was through the Jews that the Savior came. Thus, as Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).

But here Paul’s emphasis is on the universal offer of the gospel. It is for everyone who will believe. It is for the religious Jew who will believe and it is for the pagan Greek who will believe. None need be excluded. The good news is for you, whatever your background! Are you a self-righteous, religious, moral person? You must not trust in any of these things, but as a sinner receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. Are you an atheist or an immoral person or a greedy, cheating businessman? You must turn from these sins and cry out to God to be merciful to you, the sinner, and you will go home justified today (Luke 18:9-14). The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

2. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it.

I ask, “Have you believed the gospel?” Have you abandoned all of your self-righteousness and all of your good works as the basis for your standing before God and instead trusted only in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you believe this good news when you fail and Satan accuses you? On the basis of your right standing before God, do you daily battle against sin, so that your attitudes and behavior are progressively righteous? Is God’s power to save you from the power of sin evident in your relationships in the home?

3. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must proclaim it boldly.

I could develop an entire message on this point, but I’m out of time. But I ask, “Are you ashamed of the gospel?” Do you dodge warning people about the wrath of God, because that isn’t a popular idea? Do you avoid telling them about the shed blood of Christ as the only remedy for sin, because it sounds kind of primitive? Do you put a positive spin on the gospel, so that it sounds like a positive plan for how to have a happy life here and now? If so, you’re being ashamed of the gospel.


The gospel is the good news that God has revealed to us how we can be rescued from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:5-10). It is the very power of God to save everyone who believes, because in it God reveals how His perfect righteousness will be put to the account of the guilty sinner who trusts in Christ. I pray that we will understand the gospel, believe it personally, preach it to ourselves every day, and proclaim it unashamedly to this lost world.

Application Questions

  1. What are some reasons that you have been ashamed of the gospel in the past? How can you prepare yourself so that it won’t happen in the future?
  2. Why is it important to understand that salvation is not just a human decision, but requires the very power of God in imparting new life? What errors occur when we forget this?
  3. Why is it important to insist that justification means that God declares the sinner righteous, not that He makes them righteous? What implications follow from each view?
  4. What is the difference between genuine saving faith and superficial, false faith (believing “in vain,” 1 Cor. 15:2)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 6: Is God’s Wrath Justified? (Romans 1:18-23)

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Probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8th, 1741. I had a college philosophy professor who ridiculed that sermon and the frantic response that many had to it that day. But, clearly, God used that sermon like He has few others!

To say that the concept of God’s wrath is out of sync with our modern world is to state the obvious. Even many who claim to be evangelicals object to and minimize any mention of God’s wrath. They may say that they believe it because it’s in the Bible, but they’re embarrassed by it. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “I believe in a God of love, not a God of wrath.” Sometimes such people ignorantly imply that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but by the New Testament, He mellowed out to be a nice old guy! I’ve been told that Jesus was always loving and never judgmental. I always want to ask such people, “When was the last time you actually read the New Testament?”

Modern “seeker” churches have drawn huge crowds by never mentioning sin and judgment, and instead focusing on the more positive aspects of the gospel: “God loves you. He offers you an abundant life full of peace, joy, and love. He will help you with your problems. He wants you to be happy. Won’t you invite Him into your heart?”

But there is no mention of a holy God who is justified in His wrath against sinners. We’ve bought into the old liberal message, which theologian Richard Niebuhr once described (The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193, cited by Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People [Image Books, 1975], 2:249), “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

When the apostle Paul begins to expound on the gospel that he proclaimed, he does not lead off with the love of God (as we saw last time), but with the righteousness of God. When he elaborates further, he does not even then mention God’s love, but rather, God’s wrath. Modern critics would say, “Paul, you’re not going to win any converts by that approach! Lighten up! Maybe, much later, you can touch on that subject. But when you’re trying to win people to Christ, don’t mention God’s wrath!”

But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, leads off with (Rom. 1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” For links this to verses 16 & 17. If we’re going to understand why we need God’s power in the gospel and why we need His very righteousness imputed to our account, then we need to understand His wrath against our sin. If we’re not such bad folks and if we have enough good deeds to earn points towards heaven, then we don’t need God’s righteousness and Christ did not need to bear God’s wrath on our behalf. But if we are ungodly and unrighteous in God’s sight, if we have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, and as a result are under His just wrath, then we desperately need God’s saving power through the gospel!

Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (1:23-32) may be more prevalent among the Gentiles. He moves on (2:1-16) to indict those who think that they are moral enough to commend themselves to God. Then (2:17-3:8), Paul turns on the Jews who pride themselves on having the Law, showing how they are also guilty before God. Finally (wing that the entire human race is justly guilty before God. Only at that point (3:21-26) does he come back and pick up the theme of 1:17, that the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ is available to sinners through faith alone.

In our text, then, Paul is showing why God is justified to inflict His wrath on the sinful human race, which shows why we need the gospel. We can sum up his message in 1:18-23:

God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself and have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.

1. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself (1:18-20).

Paul argues that God has revealed Himself to the human race, both through His wrath (1:18) and through His creation (1:19-20). But we have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation and instead have resorted to inventing gods of our own (1:21-23).

A. God reveals Himself through His wrath against human sin.

There is an obvious parallel and yet contrast between verses 17 & 18. In verse 17, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In verse 18, “the wrath of God is revealed.” The phrase, “from heaven” adds weight to the revelation. This isn’t just an idea that popped into Paul’s mind. This is a revelation from heaven, that is, from God Himself.

When we think about God’s wrath, we need to get rid of any human notions of someone with a bad temper who flies off the handle over the slightest provocation. Rather, God’s wrath is a part of His holy nature. It is His settled, determined, active opposition to all sin. If God loves righteousness, He also must hate evil. If God were all love and no wrath, then He would not be God at all, because He would be unrighteous. We know this even on a human plane. If a judge was all love and hugs towards cold-blooded murderers or child molesters, he would not be a righteous judge. Even though our anger easily slips from being righteous to unrighteous, we all know that anger is the proper response to certain sins. In the same way, God would not be holy or good if He did not react to evil with wrath and righteous judgment.

We only have time to look at a few of the biblical references to God’s wrath. Ignoring the many Old Testament references, the New Testament starts off with the ministry of John the Baptist, who tells his audience (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Matthew 23:33, after pronouncing a series of “woes” on the Pharisees, Jesus thunders, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?”

In John 3:16, we have the marvelous verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” Oops! I left out something: “shall not perish”! Years ago, I conducted a funeral where they had printed up the little cards with John 3:16 as I just erroneously quoted it to you! I didn’t let it go! To perish means to come under God’s eternal wrath. In John 3:36 we read, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

In Ephesians 2:3, Paul says that we all (Jews and Gentiles) were “children of wrath,” a Jewish way of saying that we were characterized by being under God’s wrath. In Ephesians 5:6, he uses the same Jewish expression to say that “the wrath of God comes on the sons of disobedience” (also, Col. 3:6). In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says that Jesus “rescues us from the wrath to come.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, he writes that God will deal “out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction ….” The entire Book of Revelation shows the many forms of wrath that will be poured out on sinners both before and after Jesus returns.

J. I. Packer (Knowing God [IVP], pp. 134-135) said, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” A. W. Pink (The Attributes of God [Baker], p. 82) wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.” So we cannot shove God’s wrath into the closet! R. W. Dale observed (cited by R. C. Sproul, The Cross of Christ Study Guide [Ligonier Ministries], p. 35), “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”

Later (2:5), Paul acknowledges that a future day of wrath is coming at the final judgment, but here (1:18) he calls attention to the present revelation of God’s wrath (the verb means, “is being revealed”). What does he mean? If we look around, we can see God’s wrath in all of the effects of the fall, both on creation and on human misery and suffering. We see floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, and disease, which cause untold suffering and death. There are the more direct links between sin and judgment, such as STD’s and the AIDS epidemic on the sexually immoral, and the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on addicts. We see the terrible effects of drunkenness and drug abuse in the home, on our highways, and in society at large. We see the devastating effects of war and terrorism. The list could go on and on.

Also, a glance through past history, both in the Bible and outside of it, shows the ongoing wrath of God. He destroyed the whole world through the flood. He poured out fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. He punished both Israel and Judah allowing invading armies to kill many and send others into captivity.

But the greatest example of God pouring out His wrath was when He put His own Son on the cross to bear our sins, so that He cried out in agony (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus’ terrible death shows that God cannot just brush our sin aside. His righteous judgment must be satisfied. As Paul argued with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:31), the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness….” Woe to all who have not repented of their sins and trusted in Christ before that day! God reveals Himself through His wrath. Don’t miss it!

B. God reveals Himself through His creation.

Paul goes on to show another way that God has revealed Himself, namely, through His creation. Here Paul is referring to God’s general revelation in the created universe, not to His special revelation in His written word. Most commentators understand “His invisible attributes” to be a summary term that is further explained by the next two terms, “His eternal power and divine nature.” Anyone should be able to look at the vastness of the universe (even in days before there were telescopes!) and conclude, “God is amazingly, incomprehensibly, powerful! You don’t have to gaze into outer space—get caught in an exposed area in a thunderstorm and you will appreciate God’s power! Marla and I have had some terrifying experiences with that!

God’s “divine nature” refers to the sum of His attributes (S. Lewis Johnson, “Paul and the Knowledge of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-March, 1972], p. 69). This does not mean that we can learn as much about God through nature as we can through His Word. But, even so, men should be able to look at God’s creation and conclude many things about His attributes, in addition to His power.

John Calvin sums it up well (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 71-72), “His eternity appears evident, because he is the maker of all things—his power, because he holds all things in his hand and continues their existence—his wisdom, because he has arranged things in such an exquisite order—his goodness, for there is no other cause than himself, why he created all things, and no other reason, why he should be induced to preserve them—his justice, because in his government he punishes the guilty and defends the innocent—his mercy, because he bears with so much forbearance the perversity of men—and his truth, because he is unchangeable.”

It is important to recognize that God’s revelation through creation is not enough to save anyone, in that it does not reveal His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, apart from which no one can be saved (Acts 4:12). But it is enough to condemn everyone. By looking even at their own bodies or at the marvel of a little gnat that can fly, eat, and reproduce, people should bow in worship before God. But they don’t. They swat the gnat in annoyance and go on without a thought about the intelligence, power, and wisdom that it took to create a gnat, much less all of creation! They ignore the obvious fact that there is an all-powerful God and go full bore in their selfishness and sin, ignoring the obvious revelation of His wrath in the fact that they will soon die!

Two brief comments before I move on: First, in answer to the question that often comes up, “Will God judge the innocent heathen who has never heard about Jesus?” The answer is, there are no innocent heathen. All have sinned against the light that they have received and all will be judged accordingly (Matt. 11:20-24).

Second, I hope that you can see how utterly absurd and yet how widely destructive to people’s eternal destiny the belief in evolution is. It gives sinners a supposed escape from being accountable to God, as some prominent atheists have openly admitted. Although there is more than abundant evidence of an all-powerful Creator, evolutionists cling to the absurd idea that everything came out of nothing. At the root of their belief is not science, but immorality. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness. That leads to:

C. Sinners have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation of Himself, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

Paul says (1:18) that God’s wrath is revealed “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Some commentators see these two words, “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness,” as being somewhat synonymous, repeated for emphasis. But others say that Paul is using them quite strictly to refer to “lack of reverence for God” (“ungodliness”) and “lawlessness or injustice towards our fellow man” (“unrighteousness”).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], pp. 355-359) argues at length that the terms refer to these two different aspects of sin and that Paul has put them in this order for an important reason: ungodliness is always the root sin and unrighteousness flows from it. Our first and basic problem is that we disregard and disobey God. This leads to our sins against one another. Ungodliness was the first sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This led to separation from God, which then led to alienation between them and eventually to the sin that caused Cain to murder his brother Abel.

The word “suppress” may mean to hold on to, or to hold down, which is the idea here. It implies that men knew the truth (note that there is such a thing as knowable absolute spiritual truth!), but they want to hold it down so that they can pursue their sins. Whether it is evolution denying God as the Sovereign Creator, or philosophy speculating that we cannot really know God at all, or psychology telling us that we are not responsible for our problems (psychologists don’t like the word “sin”!), these are all ways of pushing God away from us so that we can be our own lord. “So that they are without excuse” is probably a purpose clause that means, “Sinners cannot plead ignorance as an excuse” (Johnson, p. 69). God has posted huge warning signs with flashing lights, namely, His ongoing wrath and His magnificent creation. If sinners drive past them over the cliff, they only have themselves to blame.

So, Paul’s first point is: God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself. I can only comment briefly on his second point and its implications:

2. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator (1:21-23).

Paul makes five points here:

A. People knew God generally through the revelation of Creation.

Paul seems here to be interpreting human spiritual history in light of the fall (Johnson, p. 72). Verse 21 does not mean that men knew God in a saving way, but rather that they had a general sense that He exists. In The Institutes (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:3:1), John Calvin asserts that all people have an awareness of God. He says, “There is no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.” As Paul has just shown, God’s creation makes His attributes evident within all people, until they suppress it. There is also the universal presence of the conscience (2:15).

B. People did not glorify God or give thanks.

This is the root sin: Although people know about God, they do not give Him His proper glory and they do not express thanks to Him for His many undeserved blessings. We could easily develop an entire sermon or two here, but let me apply it directly: It’s easy to sit here and shake our heads at the heathen, who have no concept of glorifying God or giving thanks. But do I glorify God for His goodness and mercy and grace? Do I give thanks to God for His many blessings that He showers on me every day?

C. As a result, the foolish hearts of sinners were darkened.

Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 4:18, where he describes “the Gentiles” (pagans) as “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” When Paul says, “their foolish heart was darkened,” he is referring to their entire inner life, including their intellect, emotions, and will (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 85). To be in the dark refers to total moral and spiritual blindness. Only God can shine His light into such dark hearts (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

D. As a result of darkened hearts, sinners profess to be wise, but are fools.

Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10), those who do not fear God or bow before Him as God profess to be wise, but are fools (Ps. 14:1). “Fools” does not refer to mental deficiency, but to spiritual and moral deficiency. Turning from the revelation that God has given of Himself in His wrath and in creation, sinners plunge into futile speculation. As a philosophy major at a secular university, I know of no better description of godless university professors than Romans 1:21 and 22. The final result is:

E. This foolishness is exhibited by worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.

Rejecting God does not lead to atheism, but to substituting the glory of the one true God with manmade idols “in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Man didn’t begin with idolatry and polytheism and work his way up to monotheism. Man began by knowing the one true God, but when he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, he falls into the supreme foolishness of creature worship (Isa. 44:9-20).

I’ve seen idolatry of statues and sacred cows in Asia. I’ve observed people worship the creation here in Flagstaff. But it never ceases to amaze me, as I’ve said before, that here in a university town, we have a store that has stayed in business for many years by selling nothing but idols! It’s as if the idols of self, sex, money, and power were not enough! We’ve got a store selling just about any conceivable idol that you could see worshiped in India or Nepal or Thailand! Idolatry is really stupid, but, I should add, there is real power in idolatry—but it is demonic power, not God’s power.


So, is God just in pouring out His wrath on those who have rejected His revelation of Himself, who turn instead to worship the creature rather than the Creator? When you stand before Him, do you have any chance of winning your case? Only if by faith you stand there covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. Does the concept of God’s wrath offend or embarrass you? Why? Examine your reasoning and motives.
  2. Some have said that things like the AIDS epidemic and other catastrophes cannot be God’s judgment because the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Why is this faulty reasoning?
  3. There is an organization that purports to be evangelical and yet is dedicated to “theistic evolution.” Why is this not a biblical option?
  4. Why are “glorifying God” and “giving thanks” such fundamental issues? How can we practice these qualities more faithfully?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Worship (Personal)

Lesson 7: Going Down, Down, Down, Part 1 (Romans 1:24-27)

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If you were born after 1970, you may not realize how drastically America and the West changed during the 1960’s. I grew up in the 1950’s watching TV shows like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best,” all of which depicted the typical American family. The father wore a suit, supported the family, and was looked to as the head of the home. The mother wore a dress, prepared the meals, and dispensed wisdom to the kids to help them navigate life’s normal struggles. There was not a hint of sexual immorality, whether with the parents or kids. A kiss between a teen boy and girl was about as far as things went for the kids. There were no references to drugs. It was pretty radical when Ricky Nelson formed a rock band, even though their music was pretty tame compared to today’s standards.

When I was in high school, the word “gay” meant, “happy.” I did not know what homosexuality is until somewhere around ninth grade. Back then, it was a gross put-down to say that a guy “sucked” (that is the origin of that term; I wince when I hear Christians use it). I didn’t know what a condom was until I was in junior high. In my high school, a few of the kids smoked marijuana, but they were not in the “in” crowd. Using more potent drugs was pretty much unheard of.

I do not watch any of the current TV sitcoms. I’m probably a rare American, in that I’ve never watched an episode of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld” or other shows of that genre. But from reading reviews I know that on such shows, sex between unmarried partners is openly accepted, graphically talked about, and sometimes portrayed. Homosexuality is now accepted as normal. A popular show features housewives who are desperately looking for happiness by being unfaithful to their marriage vows. A current movie preaches that children raised by homosexual couples are just as emotionally healthy and normal as other children are.

We’ve gone down a long ways from the 1950’s! Some would say that because of these flagrant sins, America is on the brink of God’s judgment. But Paul would say, “No, America is already under God’s judgment.” When a society flaunts and gives hearty approval to such sins, even applauding them as right, it shows that God has already given that society over to impurity, to degrading passions, and to a depraved mind.

Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 87) explains Paul’s purpose in our text:

It is sometimes objected that this is not a balanced picture; the pagan world could do better than this. Of course it could, and Paul shows us something of this in the next chapter. But here he is not trying to picture the total scene. He is pursuing his theological purpose of showing that all people are sinners. In pursuit of this aim, he concentrates on that part of the picture which is relevant…. It is Paul’s purpose to show that [sin] exists, and that it exists universally. Wherever pagans are to be found, the kinds of sin of which he speaks will be found also.

Paul’s point in Romans 1:24-32 (we will only go through v. 27 this week) is:

When people reject God and exchange His glory for the worship of the creature, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences.

As we saw last week, Paul is showing how the wrath of God is being “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). One aspect of God’s wrath is to give sinners over to their lusts, so that they experience the inevitable, horrible consequences of sin. That is to say, sin itself is its own punishment! People think that sin will bring them fulfillment and happiness. It may feel good in the short run. But God has designed His moral laws so that if you break them individually or if a society casts them off collectively, those laws turn around and break you! It’s like the law of gravity: you can break it, but then it breaks you.

We might wonder when this divine judgment of giving people over to their sin took place. Is Paul describing the fall? Or does he have in mind the demise of certain cultures, such as Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is he talking about individuals who go so far in sin that God gives them over to their sins? Probably he is referring to all of the above.

At the fall, the human race was cut off from fellowship with the holy God and plunged into sin. We all are born in sin, alienated from God. We are by nature spiritually blind, children of wrath, and under God’s just condemnation. We are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because by nature we are sinners. Unless we are born spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will pursue a course of sin. Some are restrained from sinning more than others. But all people apart from God’s grace in Christ, have cast off the living and true God and have embraced whatever false gods they think will bring them happiness. So in one sense, this applies to the entire human race, born in sin.

But on another level, it applies to particular cultures down through history. At the Tower of Babel, proud sinners defied God, bringing down His judgment by confusing their languages. Sodom and Gomorrah were so corrupt that God rained fire and brimstone on them as an example to others of His wrath against sin. When God told Moses and Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, it was because over four centuries, they had filled up the measure of their sin (Gen. 15:16). Ancient Greece and Rome had their times of glory, but idolatry and immorality brought them down. And so it has been down through history. When a people abandons God, at some point God abandons that people.

This is also true on the individual level. All people without Christ are in sin, but when an individual brazenly turns his back on the light that God has given him and goes full bore into a decadent lifestyle, it shows that God has given him over to his lusts. If he keeps going in that direction, he may eventually cross the point of no return, where he is so hardened in sin that he is beyond the hope of salvation!

Paul here makes two main points: (1) The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). (2) When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32). He shows this judgment three times by stating, “God gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28). First, God gave them over to impurity; second, He gave them over to the degrading passions of homosexuality; third He gave them over to a depraved mind, expressed in all sorts of socially destructive sins.

1. The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).

“For they exchanged the truth of God for the [lit.] lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Verse 25 explains the reason that God gave people over in their lusts to impurity (1:24), to degrading passions (1:26), and to a depraved mind (1:28) by basically repeating the truth of 1:21-23. Because people did not honor God or give Him thanks, their foolish hearts were darkened. Their foolishness led them to exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for idols.

“The truth of God” refers to the truth that He has revealed about Himself and about all things. God is not a projection of our ideas or a figment of human imagination. God is. He exists in and of Himself and He has always existed outside of time before He spoke the universe into existence. Our knowledge of Him can only come through His revelation of Himself, which is centered in Jesus Christ His Son and contained in the Bible. As we saw in 1:18 and 20, God reveals Himself generally through His wrath against sin and through His creation. But to know specifically who God is and how to be saved, we must have His Word. Contrary to the postulates of postmodernism, this truth about God revealed in the Bible is knowable and absolute.

But sinful men exchanged this truth of God for [lit.] “the lie,” which refers to the lie of idolatry. In 1:23, sinners exchanged the glory of God for idols. Here, they exchange the truth of God for the lie, that we can worship things other than God, all of which are mere creatures, not the Creator. It is the lie that any creature can live independently of God as “self-sufficient, self-directing, and self-fulfilling” (John Witmer, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:443). As a result of exchanging the glory of God for idols and exchanging the truth of God for the lie, God gave these sinners over to degrading passions, so that they exchanged their natural sexual orientation for that which is unnatural (1:26). The word “exchange” implies that if you cast off God, you will serve idols.

The important thing to see is that there is this cause and effect relationship. The root cause is the sin of rejecting the truth of God, resulting in worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. By referring to God as the Creator, Paul takes us back to the opening statement of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible does not debate the point or open it up for discussion. Rather, the Bible asserts that God created everything and that He did it by speaking it into existence (“God said,” Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; Ps. 33:6, 9). This asserts His sovereignty over everything. It means that as creatures, we depend totally on God and must be subject to Him. He is the only true God and He made all things for His glory.

Thus when Paul mentions God as the Creator, he almost uncontrollably adds, “who is blessed forever. Amen.” It’s as if he wants to clear the foul air after referring to men worshiping and serving the creature (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 50). Blessing, extolling, or glorifying God forever and ever is the reason that He created us. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He is in fact blessed forever, whether we acknowledge Him or not (Rom. 9:5). Thus the root sin is when we turn from God and replace Him with the creature. Idolatry is the sin of worshiping anything in place of the true God.

In America, we do not see blatant idolatry as frequently as you see it in Asia or Africa. Most Americans do not set up statues and pray to them or offer incense or gifts before them. But there are many other forms of idolatry in America. If you “use” God for what He can give you and then “set Him back on the shelf” until the next time you need Him, you’re doing the same thing that idolaters do with their idols. They use the idols when they need them to achieve their own purposes. They are not usually subject to the idols to follow their commands. Self is really the root idol. Self uses the idol to get what self wants.

We can fall into idolatry of things that otherwise are good. Some people in effect worship the family. God gives us our families and they are good in their proper perspective. But if we rely on the family in place of God, so that we can only find fulfillment and happiness in our families, we have fallen into idolatry and are not following Jesus as Lord (Luke 14:26). Material possessions are a good gift from God and it’s not wrong to enjoy such things (1 Tim. 6:17). But if we put our hope in things or in our investments and not in God, we have fallen into idolatry (Luke 12:16-21; 14:33). Vocations, entertainment, sports, computers, TV, and many other things can dominate our lives and become idols, taking the place that God alone deserves. This is the root sin: rejecting the truth of God and worshiping the creature instead of the eternally blessed Creator. “Amen” means, “So be it!”

2. When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32).

Three times Paul says, “God gave them over”: First (1:24), to impurity; second (1:26), to degrading passions (homosexuality); third, to a depraved mind (1:28). We find a similar expression in Psalm 81:12, where God responds to Israel’s disobedience by saying, “So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices.” (See, also, Acts 7:42.) They abandoned God; God abandoned them. The phrase means that God took His hands off their lives and delivered them over to their sentence, where sin takes its own ugly course.

It does not in any way imply that God causes people to sin. But neither is God merely passive. Rather, as Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 107) says, “He positively withdrew His hand; He ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river.” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 111) goes a bit farther: “God does not simply let the boat go—he gives it a push downstream.”

Parents sometimes get to this point with a rebellious child. You say, “Do what you want and you will pay the consequences of your actions.” Maybe you help him carry his duffel bag out the door. The father of the prodigal son did this with the boy’s outrageous request to get his share of the inheritance before the father’s death. He gave him what he wanted, and let him squander it all and end up in the pigsty. It reminds me of Psalm 106:15, where in response to Israel’s demand for meat in the wilderness, it says, “So He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (NASB, margin). Sin is its own punishment!

Today we can only look briefly at the first two sections.

A. God gives sinners over to sexual impurity, resulting in the dishonoring of their bodies (1:24).

“Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Paul is referring to sexual lusts. God designed sex as a good gift, but He clearly commands that it be restricted to monogamous, heterosexual marriages. In that context, the sexual union glorifies God as it expresses exclusive love between a man and a woman and is an earthly picture of the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:31-32).

Outside of that context, if we engage in sexual behavior, we dishonor our bodies and defile ourselves with impurity, a word used of decaying matter, like the contents of a grave (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, NASB [Nelson Bibles], p. 1661). Paul says that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one flesh with her, but in so doing, he defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in believers (1 Cor. 6:16-19). He gives us a godly perspective of how to use our bodies when he concludes (1 Cor. 6:19b-20), “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”

Sexual lusts begin in the heart (Mark 7:21-23). If we do not judge lustful thoughts on the heart level, sooner or later we will face the temptation to involve our bodies. Does it feel good at the moment? Yes, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But it leads to your being enslaved by sin. Since sex outside of marriage is outside of the context for which God designed it, it never completely satisfies. It leaves you empty and broken.

Before I leave this point, let me say to the men, especially: If you are enslaved to pornography, you have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. You are worshiping the creature, not the Creator. Viewing pornography weakens your resistance to an actual sexual encounter, which Satan will bring your way. If you yield to that, you dishonor your body, defile yourself, and start on this downward cycle. If you are married, viewing pornography sabotages your marriage. Jesus warned that if you do not take radical action (pluck out your eye, cut off your hand) to rid yourself of the sin of mental lust, you are on your way to hell (Matt. 5:27-30)! I would not have said it so harshly, but Jesus did and He is Lord. So you don’t want God to give you over to that sin! Get help if you need it, but judge lust before it judges you!

B. God gives sinners over to homosexuality, resulting in them receiving the due penalty of their sin (1:26-27).

We live in a time when the homosexual community has so strongly influenced our godless culture that if you stand against it and say that it is sin, you are labeled as an intolerant bigot. They have skillfully portrayed it as a “human rights” issue, so that those who oppose it seem anti-American. But God’s Word is not tolerant of homosexuality or ambiguous about it: it is clearly sin (Gen. 19:4-5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Judges 19:22-23). Paul elsewhere includes it in lists of sins (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).

But why does Paul focus on homosexual relations here?  Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 94) explains,

Probably because it functions as the best illustration of that which is unnatural in the sexual sphere. Idolatry is “unnatural” in the sense that it is contrary to God’s intention for human beings. To worship corruptible animals and human beings instead of the incorruptible God is to turn the created order upside down. In the sexual sphere the mirror image of this “unnatural” choice of idolatry is homosexuality.

Paul uses unusual Greek words for “male” and “female” here, which are elsewhere used in the creation account. His point is that homosexuality for either sex goes against God’s intention in creation (Schreiner, p. 95). Just looking at how men’s and women’s bodies are designed should prove that point!

Paul says (1:27) that homosexuals receive “in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” The error is not an inadvertent mistake, but rather the rejection of the true God for idols (Schreiner, p. 97). Paul may mean that being delivered over to homosexuality itself is the penalty. Contrary to the word “gay,” homosexuals are disproportionately unhappy people. Those who attempt to live in committed homosexual relationships have a three to four times greater dissolution than that of heterosexual married couples. They experience much higher rates of domestic violence than opposite sex couples do (these statements documented in an email from the Family Research Council, Aug. 10, 2010). The Journal of Human Sexuality (Vol. 1, p. 93, National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 2009) concludes with regard to homosexuals, “No other group of comparable size in society experiences such intense and widespread pathology.”

Is AIDS God’s judgment on homosexuals? If you mean that each person who has AIDS got it from sexual sin, the answer is no. Babies get it from their mothers and patients get it from tainted blood transfusions. But when God sends a temporal judgment due to a nation’s sin, such as war, famine, natural disaster or disease, the so-called “innocent” suffer along with the directly guilty. The fact is, if there were no sexual promiscuity, especially homosexuality, there would be virtually no AIDS. There is an obvious, direct correspondence between practicing homosexuality and AIDS. So in that sense, it is God’s judgment against that sin.

Are homosexuals born that way? There is no scientific evidence to date to support that claim, although researchers have desperately been looking for it. But even if the inclination is genetic, it still is sin to practice it. Some may be genetically prone to heterosexual lust or to anger or alcohol addiction, but these are still sins. Even if we are genetically predisposed to a sin, we are responsible before God if we yield to that sin.


The good news is, Jesus came to deliver us from our sins. Paul includes former homosexuals in Corinth when he wrote (1 Cor. 6:11), “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That can be your testimony, too, if you will trust in Christ.

Application Questions

  1. What are some forms of American idolatry? How can we guard ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)?
  2. Some organizations are committed to recovering the values of our Christian heritage in America through legislation. Is this the right approach? Will it help? What else is needed?
  3. Can a person whom God has given over to his sins be saved? When has he crossed the line of no return?
  4. Can a truly saved man be “addicted” to pornography? Consider Matthew 5:27-30 in your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Worship