Preaching the Epistle to the Romans: Having Traveled So Far I Have Arrived Where I Started

Preaching the Epistle to the Romans: Having Traveled So Far I Have Arrived Where I Started

I wrote this little piece on April 15th, 2015 barely weeks into my exposition of Romans. I tucked it away as a sort of theological time capsule. But, unlike real time capsules intended document changes that have occurred over time, once this essay was exhumed, I discovered no time had passed and nothing had changed. I stand in exactly the same spot with the exact same thoughts as if it were yesterday. Time stood still. The shadow that the glory of Christ casts on the dial of creation covers the radius of all things and extends infinitely in every direction. He remains the same yesterday, today and forever.  

 Byron

 June 27, 2017

I waited as long as I could before preaching The Epistle to the Romans. But, not nearly as long as I needed to wait. Honestly, it’s a hard call to make. With Romans timing is critical. Start too soon and you’ll miss all the nuance the experience of ministry can yield as you stare into its pages. Start too late and you’ll miss out on all the perspective it affords your experience of ministry. Ironic, I know. Nonetheless, after taking a “screen shot” of my life and ministry I reluctantly made the decision to start. Preparations were underway in the spring and I launched my exposition in the fall. I am now two months deep into Paul’s brain and the gospel’s core. Romans does not disappoint.

As far as timing goes, I’m somewhere between too soon and too late. On the one hand, Romans has revealed my inadequacies as an exegete and theologian. I’ve studied Greek for over twenty years, but I would need twenty more to see the true depth of its meaning. Redemption in Romans is in IMAX 3D and my brain, by comparison, rolls along in reel to reel. The combination of theological and biblical acumen necessary to do Romans justice is hard to describe. Any preacher who claims to be it’s equal is proving his inadequacy with such ridiculous assertions. On the other hand, I wish I had studied it a long time ago. It’s been life transforming. The letter is a testament to the Holy Spirit’s genius. It is the most brilliant, insightful, detailed and impregnable defense of the gospel ever written. I’m only twenty-one verses into its message and I’m seeing the world differently already. The effects are irreversible.

But, Romans has also been revealing on an unexpected level and a very personal one at that. I discovered – rather immediately – that I misread the letter for years. And I’m rather certain that the majority of times I’ve heard it explained it’s been explained wrongly. It’s either this, or I was not paying attention totally missing what others were saying. If this happens to be the case, I’ve no problem acknowledging my culpability. No doubt this is part of it. But regardless, the Romans I’m now explaining for others and the Romans that was explained to me seem to be (at times) altogether different books. To be clear, I’ve not arrived at a “new” explanation of Romans. I claim no such thing. There is nothing original in my observations and comments about this letter. On the contrary, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve arrived at an “old” understanding of Romans. One that my fundamentalist/pietistic /dispensational leaning past hid from my sight.

There are any number of factors (besides my own inadequacy) to which I could point as contributing factors to the obstruction of my understanding. The major one, in my opinion, lies within the realm of biblical theology. Without redemption (the work of Christ) as the lens through which you read the history and truths of the Bible you are left with insufficient alternatives for understanding it. These include pietism (how does this help me improve my Christian conduct), moralism (what does this teach me about personal and social reform), Zionism (what does this reveal about a specific group of people), bibliology (how does this establish the authority of Bible), pragmatism (how does this make my life better), escapism (when will the roll be called up yonder). But, the aperture of these lenses isn’t large enough to capture everything that occurs in the Bible and not sufficiently focused enough to give everything else meaning. Only Jesus does that. Undoubtedly, certain of these may be part of it, but they are not the whole of it. They’re pieces of a mosaic. But, back off far enough from these fragments and you find a stunning portrait of Jesus (biblical theology). He is the “gift of righteousness” to mankind (Romans 5:17).

To be even more specific, it was my tradition’s inability to adequately distinguish between the Law and the Gospel running concurrently through the redemptive movement of the Bible which blocked my view of Romans. Undoubtedly, this is also the reason why so many explanations of Romans make Paul sound like an angry preacher on some sort of “hell in a hand basket rant” (moralism). Whether due to its innate fear of a covenantal perspective (bi-covenentalism), or its unwillingness to allow reformed theology to help organize our thinking, my tradition gave little attention to the dilemma of the Law. But, fact is, you cannot understand the letter without the “issue of the Law” in view. The letter is specifically about how God dealt with his own inflexible righteous standard (the Law) in order to save sinners (law breakers.) He spends the first two chapters making this very point. The problem with man is not merely their sin. It is the consequence that flows from the Law of God in light of sin which is the real issue to be resolved. Romans is about how God solved the immovable determination of His holy necessity to judge sinners who – in Adam – broke the Law of their Creator and now relentlessly rebel against it. In my humble opinion “…so that He would be the Just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” is the most profound phrase ever constructed.  

Stated positively, Romans exposes rather constantly the paradigm shift that has taken place in my life and faith. This is especially true as it concerns the actual point of the Bible itself. The Bible is about Jesus. His accomplishment in the atonement and the eternal consequences thereof. I know this seems an odd revelation for a pastor who’s been preaching the Bible for twenty-five years, but it’s a fact. To state it negatively, Romans has revealed (also rather constantly) the failure of the Christian tradition from which I am descended to render Jesus life and death as the point of the Bible. Categorize it as you will, fundamentalism, contemporary pietism, dispensationalism or conservative mainline evangelicalism. I’m not sure what to call it anymore. But, what I do know is that “it” conditioned me to look for any number of secondary (and good) truths in the Bible and to offer them as central. (Not to mention it is single handedly responsible for the Left Behind Series. Which is enough to abandon it.) More to the point, my previous frame of reference inherited by my forefathers blocked my view of that which was actually central – the epoch of redemption. I could not see that so much of what I was reading was actually anticipating, explaining, prediction and applying the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ. The influence of my Christian tradition got in my way. For I was told, “Find the timeless truth and apply it.” In so doing I missed the timeless truth.  

I am not saying – mind you – that the secondary issues (practical Christian living, Christian conduct, life principles) are unimportant . They are important. But, they are not the central point, nor are they the most important. However, when you are conditioned to be constantly foraging the Bible for them (principles) you will assume they’re both (central & most). From this angle you will be unable to rightly access and interact the actual point being made even when the point is explicit.

Again, it is possible that the aforementioned strains of evangelicalism did not fail me, but I failed them. It’s quite possible that I was not paying attention. The centrality of the gospel message may have been within its emphasis all along. That certainly could be the case. It’s not my intention to levee a sweeping indictment against the sincerity of those who fit within these frameworks. I know they are sincere. I know they are committed. So, it may only be that I am late to the party. But, this does not seem to be the real explanation. The gospel was not denied. It was affirmed as true and essential. But, it does seem it assumed. Assumed to be for the lost. Assumed to be a message that unbelievers need to here. Assumed to be the starting point for the faith. Assumed to be about escaping this wretched planet. Assumed to be about separating ourselves from the corruption of the culture. Assumed to be the “underlying” point of the Bible. Assumed to be a moral high ground. Assumed to be supplemented by life application principles.

But, these are wrong assumptions. And, dangerous ones at that. Primarily, because none of these are the center. They are the margin. They’re not equivalent to the Gospel. Indeed they (some) are obvious applications of the Christian faith. But, secondary applications cannot save you. The Gospel saves you. Christ saves you. He is the “gift of righteousness” offered in the incarnate Son of God. His righteous life sacrificed on the cross and verified in the resurrection saves sinners who receive it by faith. The Gospel is the good news about what God has done about our condition. The Gospel is Jesus. This was in the back of my mind as I read the Word, but it was not in the front of it. But, I had not been conditioned to see it. Now I do.    

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