You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
As we observed in our last two articles, Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome provided him the necessary motivation to write his letter to the Romans. In fact, Paul’s mention of his desire in Romans 1:15-17 functions as the thesis statement of 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).
In the first two articles on Romans, we considered four themes found in this thesis statement: the gospel preached to the church, the gospel as the power of God unto salvation, God’s salvation to all without distinction and, in this way, God will save all His chosen people. These four major themes help us to understand why Paul spends the first eight chapters of Romans explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ and the following three chapters describing the relationship between Israel and the church. Since the thesis statement of Romans 1:15-17 sets the framework for all that follows, we are in our present study using it as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In this offering, we will focus on principles found in these verses that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 12, and 14-16.
From Faith to Faith
The gospel results in a life lived in the light of a justification that comes by faith. Paul writes that, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (1:17). As we learn of God’s righteousness, that He is both just and the Justifier of sinful men (Rom. 3:26), we are freed from the shackles of sin to walk by faith in the justification we have received through Christ. We are saved by faith; we are also called to walk by faith. Paul spends the last five chapters of Romans explaining how it is that we who have been saved by gospel faith might also walk by that very gospel faith.
Some mistakenly believe that, because they have been justified by faith, they do not have a responsibility to live by faith. This false notion is contrary to the teachings of Romans. The late Jerry Bridges wrote of a time in his life when he had adopted this false notion:
“During a certain period in my Christian life, I thought that any effort on my part to live a holy life was ‘of the flesh’ and that ‘the flesh profits nothing.’ I thought God would not bless any effort on my part to live the Christian life, just as He would not bless any effort on my part to become a Christian by good works. Just as I received Christ by faith, so I was to seek a holy life only by faith. Any effort on my part was just getting in God’s way,” (Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, pp. 78-79).
Well, Bridges was right about one thing during this time of his life: we can only accomplish what God has called us to do by faith. However, God precepts require that we walk according to faith, that we do according to faith, that we actively work according to faith. So, just as we are justified according to faith, we are called to live the Christian life according to faith. As we will see in this article and the next, this Christian life is one of relationships: relationships within the local church, within the church universal, and between us and governing authorities.
In Romans 12, he urges by the mercies of God that the church of Rome be merciful toward one another in the local church. In this way, he first turns the church inward, drawing them to one another for strength and support for the road ahead. First, he tells them not to be conformed to the image of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds (vs. 2). Paul does not tell his readers to remove themselves from the world, but rather to resist being conformed by it. Thus, they will escape two errors: conformity to the world and isolation from it. The task to which we are called requires much more faith and trust than merely seceding from the public square. Having been saved by faith, we are called to resist conformity to the world by faith while we sojourn in it. This imperative is necessary in our day, for one reason, because our conformity to the world can easily sap the strength of our Christian witness.
Notice that Paul’s first exhortation focuses on the mind of the believer. Prior to our initial repentance, we thought according to the precepts of this world, but when the Holy Spirit awakened us, our minds were changed. The mind is central because transformation comes from a renewed mind.
The first step in renewing one’s mind and resisting the influence of the world is that of recognizing the fact that we are each members of the body of Christ. As members, we have each been granted a measure of faith, gifts of the Spirit. Now, there are myriad tests that have been developed to help people try to discern their spiritual gifts. All of these tests are flawed. The true test is found in living out one’s faith in the body of Christ.
Each local body of Christ has its own individual needs. As each Christian lives and serves among the body of Christ, certain needs naturally arise among that body. Not every Christian is meant to bear the full weight of every burden in the body but, as Christians seek to find ways to serve the body of Christ, they will naturally gravitate toward those needs that are most suitable to their unique giftings. It is through this process, not canned tests, that Christians throughout the ages have discerned their unique giftings in the body of Christ.
In chapter 13, Paul addresses the Christian’s unique relationship to the government. Given that this relationship is a paramount point in our discussion, we will devote an entire article to it separate from this discussion.
In Romans 14 and 15, Paul expounds on principles of Christian liberty urging concessions for and patience with weaker brothers and a godly practice of liberty in all things done in good faith. This too was meant to break down barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Many Jews, freed from the law, wished to practice their newfound liberty in eating meat. Believing Gentiles, having participated in pagan sacrifices and knowing those meats were likely sacrificed to idols, might not have known such liberty of conscience. Both were called to be mindful of their brothers in the faith for the sake of the gospel.
In our present day, there is an added dimension. Many Dispensationalists and New Covenanters, arguing from a subjective interpretation of the “Law of Love,” have become professional “weaker brothers.” They make much of their abstinence from things, when properly used, God has explicitly blessed in His word. They use passages like Romans 14 and 15 to argue that Christians’ love for one another means they can forbid their brothers from partaking in things God has blessed. This is not the spirit with which Paul is writing.
In Acts 10, Peter had a vision in which he was shown several animals whose consumption was forbidden in the Ceremonial Law of Israel. Peter was told to rise, kill, and eat the animals, and he begged God that he not be made to eat anything unclean. A voice came from heaven saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:9-16; NASB). Were Paul in Romans 14 and 15 saying that weaker brothers could simply declare for themselves what is holy and unholy and impose their subjective standards of holy and unholy on their brothers, Peter’s vision would make no sense. Rather, Paul is recognizing that some of the novices in the church still considered certain things unholy that, used properly, were actually holy. Paul is calling for the more mature brethren to bear with these younger believers. He certainly was not giving license to Seminary professors and Seminary presidents to bind the consciences of mature believers on matters of consumption. If a believer partakes of food or drink to the glory of God, it is holy, and no one is to pass judgment.
On the other hand, we must be careful how we use liberty. In the hands of the immature, Christian liberty can be a very dangerous thing. Historically, the church has labored long to mine and consolidate from Scripture its teaching on Christian liberty. Apart from the teaching of the church on this matter throughout church history, one might take it merely to be a license to sin. Such is not the case. Consider the teaching of The Baptist Confession on the matter:
“The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation: as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind,” (The Baptist Confession, 21.1). Keep reading…
We must understand that we live in a very reactionary culture. For decades, we have been inundated with notions of political correctness, and this inundation has led to an unholy push for political incorrectness. Rather than policing our tongues, many in Western culture have taken to purposefully setting out to offend others. This is a clear violation of the principles Paul is teaching in Romans 14 and 15. To be sure, we do not want to be ruled by the weaker brother. However, neither is the Christian called to purposefully offend him. We are called to bear with him, lovingly, in his immaturity.
If he has not arrived yet at the place where he understands that all things properly used are holy unto God, we must bear with him until he does understand these things. We should not entice him to partake in something he still perceives to be unholy because, at least in his mind, he would be doing it out of rebellion against God. We are to help him to avoid any such rebellious attitudes toward God while he matures in his understanding of Christian liberty.
The Universal Church
Having examined two major points on relationships in the local church, let us now focus in on a matter that is also of vital importance to Christians: the universal church. Paul ends his letter, in Romans 16, by commending brothers and sisters in the faith to the church in Rome. His commendations are not without significance to us today.
If you have been in the church for any amount of time, you may have wondered why it is that churches require letters of transfer from other churches commending new members to their fellowship. This is not a purely modern practice. In Romans and in Colossians, Paul establishes this practice. He encourages local churches to receive and greet specific saints and offers words of commendation on their behalf (Rom. 16:1-24; Col. 4:7-14).
The other side of this coin is where the apostles specifically warn against certain individuals who have caused major problems either for him or for the church as a whole (1Tim. 1:18-20; 2Tim. 2:16-18; 4:10). This information was of vital importance for local churches, and it still is today. One of the roles of elders in a local church is that of shepherd, and shepherds are tasked with the unenviable duty of warding off wolves who come in seeking to devour the flock (Acts 20:17, 29). In this age of consumerism, wolves easily move from church to church sowing division and dissention. Pastors must be careful to examine each new member of the flock and determine their ecclesiastical history in order to guard the sheep from potential wolves.
In our next article in this series, we will continue to examine what it means to live from “faith to faith.” Specifically, we will zero in on the faith needed to live according to Paul’s teachings regarding the relationship between Christians and governing authorities in Romans 13.