You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
In our most recent posts, we have looked to the narrative portions of the New Testament to discover what they might teach us regarding Public Theology. We must caution ourselves not to read into the descriptive portions of Scripture anything that is not prescriptive. Thus, it has been our aim to stick only to examples in the words and actions of Christ and the apostles that can be proven by a closer examination of the more didactic portions of the New Testament. Today, we have finally arrived at those portions: the epistles.
A Preliminary Caution
We must be careful when discussing the different epistles within the New Testament canon, so that we do not speak in terms of a strictly Pauline theology, a Petrine theology, a Johannine theology, etc. The individual writers of Scripture did have different emphases because of their unique personalities and backgrounds. They also had different emphases because of their unique audiences and the occasions of their writings. However, insofar as the apostles were taught of the same Lord, led by the same Spirit, and inspired of the same God and Father of all to pen His holy word, they only confessed one faith.
Thus, as we begin the remainder of our study of New Testament public theology with the letters of Paul, we will take great care that we do not pit Paul’s public theology against any of the other New Testament authors. We will simply demonstrate some of his unique contributions to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, particularly as it relates to public theology. What we will find is that there is much unexpected overlap between Paul’s emphases and those of the other New Testament authors. On the other side of the same coin, we will see that there is much unexpected variety of emphases from one of Paul’s letters to the next.
The Thesis Statement of Romans
Providentially, Paul wrote to the church at Rome about his desire to come and to minister the gospel to them and, as we shall see, four other books of the Bible (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) would later be written by Paul from a Roman imprisonment. Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome spilled over into a lengthy and greatly cherished letter. In fact, Paul’s mention of this desire in Romans 1:15-17 has been touted as the thesis statement that provides the structure for all that follows in the letter.
“So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
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,’” (Romans 1:15-17; NASB).
Being that these verses set the framework for all that follows, we will use them as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In this article, we will focus on principles found in this thesis statement that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 1-8.
A Gospel for the Church
Notice firstly the fact that Paul is talking to the church of God: “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints,” (vs. 7a; NASB). Paul tells these believers that he desires to preach the gospel to them. He does not say he desires to preach moralism, jokes, stories, or any other thing modern, pragmatic churches might use in an attempt to attract unbelievers. Paul recognized one thing, and he recognized it very well: the corporate worship of God in general, and the preaching of His word in particular, are privileges given to His people. Paul had no desire to preach secular psychology, the traditions of men, or the wisdom of the world. Paul was concerned with preaching that which has the power to save the soul: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sanctification. He desired to preach this gospel to the church, a message that we often relegate to the task of evangelism. Why did he want to preach it to the church? He wanted to do so in order that, through the preaching of the gospel, they might be saved. But aren’t they already saved? I mean, they are the church aren’t they? When we think along these lines, we fall into the error of oversimplifying the doctrine of salvation.
Paul recognized the fact that his readers were already justified through the cross-work of Jesus Christ. He was not speaking of a desire to preach the gospel to them for the furtherance of their justification. Rather, his desire was to preach the gospel to them for their further sanctification (an essential element of overall salvation), that they might grow in their appreciation for the gospel of Jesus Christ and, thus, walk according to the knowledge they had accumulated.
The sufficiency of the gospel. Now, some may be confused as to how this teaching has anything to do with Public Theology. If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for the already saved church, we must be very precise in how we define the gospel. As we will see in our study of Galatians, adding anything to the gospel that is not intrinsic to the gospel makes it no gospel at all.
The first thing we must do is recognize the difference between the gospel and “gospel issues.” There are many pastors and theologians in the blogosphere today who use the term gospel issue as a social justice sledge-hammer to force people to do what they want them to do. We must first recognize that every sin is a “gospel issue,” because the gospel is what holistically saves us from sin. Furthermore, we should not confuse the gospel itself with the fruit that the gospel produces. The mission of the church must be centered on the preaching of the gospel.
Gospel preaching. We say that it saves us holistically, because the gospel saves us from beginning to end. Notice again that the gospel Paul is bringing, he is bringing to the church. Gospel preaching makes disciples; gospel preaching also teaches and guides disciples.
To say that we need anything other than gospel preaching to cure ethnic strife (for example) in Christian churches is like saying, “I stopped spanking my child, because it didn’t work.” Where we do not see immediate success in what God has commanded that we do, we do not have the justification to inject worldly philosophy and the traditions of man. Let us recall that Abraham had an illegitimate child with Hagar, because he would not wait on the Lord (cf. Genesis 16). Saul offered the sacrifice he had not been commanded to offer and lost his throne, because he would not wait on the Lord (cf. 1 Samuel 15). We will explore this notion more when we get to our study of Colossians.
The Power of God
Notice secondly that the gospel is the power of God to save. The Law has no power to save (Rom. 3:20, 28). Good feelings have no power to save. A sense of belonging and getting “plugged into a church ministry” have no power to save. The power of God for the salvation of all who believe is the gospel itself.
The goal of every valid, Christian pulpit ministry is wrapped up in this singular concept. Godly preaching has as its goal the salvation of the hearers (1Cor. 1:21; 15:2). There is a definite moment when that salvation is brought to the sinner, when he is called, regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God (Rom. 2:29; 5:5; 8:14-17, 29-30). However, the result of that initial grace is that the newly regenerate saint will identify with the visible church through baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Then, he will come under the teaching of the word of God and be taught all that Christ commanded. This is true discipleship: that sinners would repent, be baptized, and sit under the preached word of Christ (Mt. 28:19-20). It is that preached word, that gospel of Jesus Christ, that is the power of God unto final salvation (Rom. 8:30; 10:11-14).
Christian discipleship. One thing that often gets overlooked in our discussion of Public Theology is the necessity of discipleship. We must recognize the fact that no one comes to the Christian religion with a philosophical clean slate. By the time we come to faith in Christ, and even after we come to faith in Him, we will have imbibed the world’s way of thinking on a host of issues (e.g. gender, economics, science, ethnic relations, work ethic, etc.). These are all issues on which our thinking must be brought in line with the word of God.
There are two ways in which our thinking on these issues can be brought in line with Scripture: gospel preaching and intentional discipleship. There are at least two terms in the Greek Scriptures that are commonly translated preaching: κηρύσσω, or I herald (proclaim; cf. Lk. 24:46-47), and εὐαγγελίζω, or I bring good news (preach the gospel; 1Pt. 1:12). These are not the only two terms used in the Greek Scriptures, but they will suffice to demonstrate how preaching is discussed in the Word of God. Modern evangelicals, thanks to expository preaching, will be more clear on what we mean by gospel preaching than intentional discipleship. By gospel preaching, we simply mean the week-in / week-out preaching of the whole counsel of God, it’s central, unifying message being that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Intentional discipleship is less uniform from church to church. Some elders are more drawn to a very intense one-on-one approach to discipleship. Others prefer group settings like Sunday School, small groups, etc. It is not our purpose here to tell pastors which of these is the only right and proper approach to intentional discipleship. The point is that intentional discipleship is a necessary element of church life. If this were not true, Paul might not have written Romans 12-16.
It is this intentional discipleship Paul wrote about when he told his child in the faith, Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also,” (2Tim. 2:2; NASB). The term used in 2 Timothy 2:2 for teach is the word διδάσκω from which we get the English term didactic. This approach might be seen as more lecture based. In Romans 2:18 and Galatians 6:6, Paul uses a much more intimate term: κατηχέω, from which we get the English term catechetical. Strong’s concordance gives as one definition: “to learn by nuanced repetition.” Where a more didactic approach might take place in a lecture-based setting, like a small group or Sunday School class, the catechetical approach might be encouraged in one-on-one settings like an intimate fellowship or in the home. Either way, the discipleship of Christians, and children of Christian parents, is essential for the Christian life.
Gospel-centered discipleship. Even the discipleship of Christians is to have the gospel of Jesus Christ as its central focus, because the gospel is God’s power unto salvation and ultimate salvation requires growth in holiness. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord,” (Heb. 12:14; NKJV). Christians who do not pursue holiness will not see the Lord; they will not be saved. Let us recall what is the power of God unto this salvation: the gospel. So, if salvation requires holiness and the gospel of God is sufficient for our salvation, it is clear that the gospel is sufficient for making Christians holy.
This means that all sin is to be addressed with the gospel, whether in our preaching or in our personal discipleship. When addressing homosexual marriage, we respond with gospel preaching and gospel discipleship. When addressing ethnic strife, we respond with gospel preaching and gospel discipleship. When addressing parental neglect, laziness, drunkenness, abuse, insubordination, etc., we respond with gospel preaching and gospel discipleship.
Romans 1-8 is a thorough teaching on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul labors for chapters to help his readers to understand Christ’s gospel. Why? Simple. He wants them to know the gospel through which they have been justified, through which they are being sanctified, and through which they will be glorified. As a result of having a precise knowledge of the gospel of saving grace, believers are equipped to walk according to the statutes given them in God’s word. Having been declared holy as a result of Christ’s active and passive obedience, Christians are emboldened to walk in holiness by the power of the Spirit through the word preached.
In our next article, we will focus on principles found in Paul’s thesis statement that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 9-11.