Published in Renewal and Growth—An Evangelical Pursuit, Edited by Godfrey Yogarajah (Dehiwela, Sri Lanka: Evangelical Fellowship of Asia, 2005), pp. 17-41. Originally Given at the General Assembly of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia in Seoul, Korea, April 2004.
INTRODUCTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE
The greatest thing about the mission of the church is the message we have to proclaim, and it should remain as one of the great features that motivates people to mission. The gospel is what we proclaim to the world, and it is in responding to the gospel that people experience salvation.
However, today if you ask a new Christian why he or she became a Christian you usually get a reply like, “I was sick and we prayed to God, and he healed me. So I became a Christian;” or “I had a lot of problems and I went to this church and they prayed for me. My problems vanished; and I became a Christian.” Even in the Bible contact is made with non-Christians through such signs. In the book of Acts, for example, we find that miracles were used to win people’s attention. In the ministry of Jesus, signs pointed people to Jesus.
But these signs provide only one of the first steps in presenting the gospel. In Acts though the attention was won through miracles, the message that followed was strongly apologetic and theological in style. One of the surprising discoveries I made while studying Acts to write a commentary was that there the miracle workers in the early church, like Peter, Stephen and Paul were also skilled apologists. The people came originally to meet a need, but they stayed with Christ because they had come to realise that Jesus is the truth.
The Epistle to the Romans is a missionary book that focuses on the message of mission. Paul has not visited the church in Rome before, and he is seeking to make Rome a base for his mission to areas further west, such as Spain, where the gospel had still to be proclaimed. Romans is like a letter of self-introduction where he explains to the Roman Christians the gospel that he preaches (Rom. 15:14-29).
PAUL’S MISSIONARY DESIRES 1:11-15
After some introductory remarks (1:1-10), Paul describes some of his missionary desires. He first tells his readers about his longing to come to Rome so that there may be mutual encouragement of each other: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:11-12). But deep down there is that great aim of reaping an evangelistic harvest among the Gentiles that pulsated through Paul’s life: “I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (1:13). Behind this aim was an obligation that Paul had to the whole world, which is what caused him to preach the gospel also in Rome: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:14).
The Greek words translated “I am under obligation” in verse 14 really mean “I am a debtor.” When an honest person has a debt, and he knows that the person to whom he owes the debt desperately needs what he owes, he wants to pay it back soon. This is the attitude Paul expresses here. We live with this sense of obligation. Salvation is a great blessing which fills our hearts with joy. But it also brings with it a great obligation to tell others about it. However, the joy of salvation is so great that this obligation does not become a crippling burden.
This sense of urgency is seen in the last moments before the death of a Christian leader called Dr. Bacchus. After the doctor examined him he whispered something to his attendant before he left. Dr. Bacchus asked the attendant what the doctor had said. He replied that the doctor had said that he had only a few moments to live. The dying man said, “Then, quick, put me on my knees, and let me spend my last moments praying for the salvation of the world.” That is our attitude. The ambition that burns in our hearts is that the gospel of Christ must get out. So it is not surprising that Paul says that he is eager to preach the gospel in Rome (1:15).
MOTIVATED BY THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL (1:16-17)
We Have a Gospel. As we read through Paul’s Epistles we find that there are different motivations that cause him to be so urgent about sharing the gospel. One of those motivations is mentioned in our passage. In verse 16 Paul, gives the reason why he is so “eager to preach the gospel… in Rome” (1:15): “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” (1:16).
The NIV chooses to leave the “For” (Greek: gar) at the start of verse 16 untranslated. I think it would have been better to keep it, because Paul is clearly making a key point here which would be clearer if it were included. He is saying that he is eager to preach the gospel because the message he is giving is very powerful. It answers the greatest human need—the need for salvation. Paul is excited about evangelism because the gospel can transform people.
It is important for us always to keep the fact that one of the main reasons why we proclaim Christ and are involved in missions is the power of the gospel. Our primary aim is not to grow our churches or to be successful in ministry. Neither is it the desire to control a group of people and bring them under our leadership, as some are accusing us of doing today. They say evangelism is an extension of colonialism—a new way in which the West is trying to control the world. We preach for none of these reasons.
Paul uses a double negative “not ashamed” here to emphasise his point. It is like saying that he is excited about or proud of the gospel. The literal translation of the term “gospel,” euangelion, used in the Bible is “good news.” Good news must be shared. The gospel is God’s definitive message to the world. The Creator of the world, knowing the mess that his creation is in, has provided an answer to its problems. We have found what this answer is. Now it would be selfish for us not to share this with the world.
I was travelling by train once in Sri Lanka seated next to a government official who was a Buddhist. We struck up a conversation and, when he found out that I was a Christian worker going to a predominantly Buddhist area, he asked me why we Christians want to convert people. He told me of the disruption that is taking place in Buddhist villages as a result of people becoming Christians and he told me, “Wouldn’t it be better if you helped Buddhists to be better Buddhists and you Christians also work on being better Christians.”
I told him that we believe there is a God who created this world, and that this God, seeing the mess that the world was in, provided an answer to its problems. I said that we had found that answer. After having found this answer it would be very selfish for us to keep it to ourselves. I do not know whether he agreed with my reasoning. But at least he seemed to understand why we Christians were so urgent about sharing the gospel with others.
The Gospel is Powerful to Save. Using the word “for” (gar) again Paul goes on to say “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16b). He is giving the reason why he is excited about the gospel. Not only has he found that it is God’s answer to the problems of the world, he has also found that it is powerful to save people. Paul was excited about evangelism because he knew how it changed him and changed other people.
This ministry of the gospel brings with it much to discourage us. People fail us; they misunderstand us; colleagues are difficult to get on with; others attribute unworthy motives to what we do; and, sometimes, we ourselves fail. We are persecuted; we get exhausted; and evangelism usually gets very bad press among those who do not believe in it. It would be easy for us to get discouraged so that we can lose our freshness and urgency. The absence of the glow of excitement over the gospel among Christians is a major problem in the church today. The dominant attitude of many in Christian ministry is one of cynicism or anger.
Paul was excited about the gospel. This is why when he contemplated the gospel in his Epistles he would spontaneously break into a doxology which gave evidence of his excitement over the gospel. In Romans 11:33-36, after exploring the mystery of the gospel as it is evidenced in the current rejection of it by the Jews, he said,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
After describing how and unworthy sinner like him was given the task of sharing the gospel to sinners (1 Tim. 1:11-16) he exclaimed: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17). 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:16 is an extended reflection on the glory of the gospel ministry triggered by a report of some of the practical problems that Paul faced and God’s answer to those problems.
However severe our problems may be we cannot get over the fact that we have a great gospel. I am sometimes discouraged by the problems I am facing and not inclined to preach, but I know that I cannot be without preaching because that is my “job.” In a state of discouragement I go to read my notes, and I get excited about what I am going to preach. I am struck by the fact that this message is true—gloriously true. It is relevant and powerful to transform people. At least temporarily the discouragement is gone as I go and share the wonderful truths contained in the gospel.
Rodney (“Gypsy”) Smith (1860-1947) was an evangelist who was born in a gypsy tent in Britain and started preaching at seventeen years and preached until he was eighty-seven years old. Someone once asked him what the secret of his freshness and vigour was. He responded, “I have never lost the wonder.” The gospel has to do with the most important message ever given, the message that helps determine the eternal destiny of people. And we have been given the awesome privilege of introducing people to that which will result in their eternal salvation. There is a wonder there!
The great English Reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536), who was killed at a relatively young age because of his growing influence, said in the prologue to his New Testament that the gospel, “signified good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes a person’s heart glad, and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy.”
Salvation Depends on Faith. Paul goes on to explain that salvation is “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b). Then he says, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” We will look at the nature of faith later, but here we will note that the whole process of salvation is mediated through faith. Paul says, it is “from faith for faith.” This seems to mean, as the New Living Translation puts it, that “this is accomplished from start to finish by faith.”
No Place for Arrogance. Essentially, to believe is to admit that we cannot help ourselves and to entrust ourselves into the hands of God to save us on the merits of what he has done. If so, we cannot associate the gospel and evangelism with arrogance. We are excited about the gospel, but we cannot be arrogant.
Today those who do evangelism are often accused of arrogance, and in many Asian nations people are very angry that Christians are attempting to convert those of other faiths to Christianity. They think that we are saying that our religion is better than theirs and that therefore we are superior to them. But the nature of the Christian gospel makes arrogance impossible. When we become Christians we admit that we cannot do anything for our salvation. We are unworthy people who are thrilled about the grace that God has showered upon us. Therefore we are filled with gratitude to God. Gratitude focuses on another, whereas arrogance focuses on oneself.
In the light of this grace perspective of Christianity it is strange that there is so much manoeuvring for power and recognition in Evangelical circles. Leaders are offended if they are not given the recognition that they feel they deserve, and because of that complex arrangements have to be made at Christian events to ensure that all the “dignitaries” are given proper recognition. This attitude is totally opposed to the gospel emphasis on grace. We are nobodies who have been lifted up by God on the merits of what Christ has done. If we act arrogantly or try to show that we are better than others, we haven’t understood the gospel properly. The great Scottish theologian and pastor James Denney (1856-1917) had these words framed in the vestry of his church: “No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
Yet with salvation comes great gratitude and an excitement over the gospel. This produces the type of urgency to proclaim Christ which we see in this passage.
PEOPLE ARE UNDER WRATH 1:18-32
Having expressed his excitement over the gospel, Paul moves into an exposition of this gospel. Using his brilliant powers of arguing for the truth, he first talks of the need of humans for salvation (1:18-3:20) and then expounds how the gospel meets that need (3:21 onwards).
Ungodliness: The Refusal to Honour God (1:18-21a). Paul first shows how people are under the wrath of God. He says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). Wrath is revealed against “ungodliness,” which seems to refer to an attitude of rebellion against God, and “unrighteousness,” which seems to refer more to the conduct which that attitude brings about.
Paul says that there is a revelation of God in creation which makes people responsible to respond to it. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (1:19-20). They should have gone further with the sense that there is a God that they get by observing creation, and inquired about it. But as verse 18 puts it, “by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth.” “So,” says Paul, “they are without excuse”
Verse 21a brings us to the heart of sin: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” Sin is the refusal to accept God for who he is—as the one to be honoured. In verse 28 Paul says that “they did not see fit to acknowledge God.” This is the heart of unbelief. At the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they affirmed that they—not God—will decide what is good and evil. They became like God in that sense. They refused to honour God as God.
The reason why this is so serious is that it is treason against the government of the universe. God created the universe to be run with God as its king. When humans rebelled against God they refused to give God the honour that was due to him. In any constitution treason is the most serious crime that one could commit. This is why unbelief is so serious—serious enough to condemn people to hell.
From Ungodliness to Other Sins (1:21b-32). We said that the heart of sin is a refusal to honour God: what verse 18 called ungodliness. Ungodliness however gives rise to unrighteous behaviour. Paul says that as a result of not honouring God “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21b). That gave rise to other sins. First Paul mentions idolatry: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:22-23). This process is summarised in verse 25: “…because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Paul also mentions other sinful deeds like sexual sin as resulting from the rejection of God: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (1:27-28). Then he mentions different types of sins involving inter-personal relationships: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (1:29-31).
Three times in this section Paul uses the phrase “God gave them up” (1:24, 26, 28) explaining how God let them go along their chosen path of disobedience into various debased activities. First they rejected God, and then God gave them up to follow their debased path. This process is summarised in verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” The freedom that people have to sin is itself a part of God’s judgment against their rebellion. They may arrogantly tout their freedom to do what they want. But no good would come from it to them. It only entrenches them in misery now and in the future.
So thus far Paul has argued that the essential problem is that we have decided that we do not need God to save ourselves. This attitude of independence from God has given rise to all kinds of gross sin. I suppose we could add here that rebellion against God’s way could take somewhat more refined ways. For example, a noble lifestyle or religious tradition which does not acknowledge the need to look to God for salvation would also be an expression of rebellion from God.
One reason why Buddhism and Hinduism are growing in the West is that they do not require one to bow in submission to God. Westerners have seen the deficiency of secular humanism and want some form of spirituality or religion. But they do not want to admit that they cannot save themselves, and they do not want to have to submit to a supreme God. Buddhism and Hinduism offer a way by which they can save themselves by their own efforts. The process may take an infinite number of lives on earth through the operation of a cycle of reincarnation (Hindu) or rebirth (Buddhist). Most Western forms of reincarnation, however, seem to give hope of a quicker release or salvation than Asian Buddhism and Hinduism do. Ultimately, all religious systems which operate independent of God are expressions of human rebellion against God.
People Sense that Sin should be Punished. Paul makes an interesting comment in verse 32: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” He claims that people know that sin must be punished. We approach all humans with the presupposition that lurking somewhere in the shadows of their minds is a sense of guilt over sin and the fear that sin would be punished.
Francis Schaeffer has said that people have built a roof over their heads to shield themselves from the rays of truth that they are exposed to. The truth is too unpleasant to face up to so they construct a roof to prevent exposure to those rays. People have done this with the sense in them which tells them that sin must be punished. For example, the terrifying idea of hell has been reduced to a swear word, possibly because its trivialisation would take away the discomfort that comes from contemplating it. Schaeffer says that the evangelist’s job is to take the roof off in order to expose people to the rays of unpleasant truth. This is what we must do with the doctrine of judgement. We must lead people to see the horrors of sin and its consequences.
WRATH RESULTS IN JUDGEMENT 2:1-3:20
After demonstrating that God’s wrath is revealed against human sin (1:18-32), Paul goes on to say that God’s wrath results in judgement.
Life to Some, Punishment to Others (2:1-11). Paul first says that some people are going to have life following the judgement and others are going to face wrath. This teaching is summarised in 2:6-8:
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Judgement for Both Jews and Gentiles (2:12-29). However Paul says that every one will not be judged according to the same measure. The Jews who had more light will be judged based on what they did with the light they had. This teaching is summarised in verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” Paul goes on to say that the Gentiles have the law of the conscience and the Jews have the law of the Word (2:14-16).
We often hear people say that it is unfair for God to judge people for rejecting a gospel which they never knew. Yet, that is not what will happen. They will be judged for the failure to live according to the light they received.
Summary: All Under Sin (3:1-20, 23). After arguing his case for why all people are under the wrath of God and headed for judgement (1:18-2:29), Paul makes a summary statement where he points out that all people could be classified as being under sin (3:1-20). So 3:9 says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Having said that he goes on to quote from the Psalms to show how hopelessly lost all people are: “…as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one”
He continues his description of human sinfulness until verse 18. He climaxes this description by pointing out again that the basic sin of humans is independence from God, the refusal to give God his due place in their lives: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:18). Paul goes on to say that because of their sinfulness no one can protest to God about their judgment: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” Verse 23 has Paul’s famous description of humanity apart from Christ: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Can Some be Saved Without the Gospel? There are some who say that there are suggestions in Romans 2 which lead to the conclusion that people can be saved by living according to the light they have received even without hearing and responding to the gospel. They attribute attitudes to such people which, they say, meet the requirements for salvation. Examples of such attitudes are following their conscience; an attitude of repentance over sin; and an attitude of trust in whom they understand to be God. There are some who even say that Gentiles will be saved by works (based on 2:6-7).
I have grappled with this problem elsewhere, but because it is a growing viewpoint among Evangelicals today, I need to make at least a summary statement here. Indeed some verses in Romans 2 may be interpreted to mean that Paul allows the idea that people could be saved without hearing the gospel. These are only possible interpretations and not necessary interpretations of the text. The context seems to eliminate this interpretation. The aim of Romans 1-3 is to show that all people with no exception need the gospel because they are guilty before God and to show that no one lives adequately up to the light they have received. Paul is trying to show that though everyone had some light, not one lived up to that light. As he says in 2:11-12: “For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”
I need to add that elsewhere the Bible is clear that there are degrees of responsibility according to the light one receives. To know the gospel and not respond to it is much more serious than not to know and not respond. Jesus said, “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Note that both groups are punished for their sin. But those who knew and did not obey are given a much more severe punishment.
Jesus says the same thing about the difference in the severity of the punishment given at the judgement when he says that Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, who did not hear the message of Jesus, will be treated with much less severity at the judgement than Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum who did hear (Matt. 11:20-24). Even though the expressions of wickedness in the former set of cities were much more overtly severe, things was going to be more bearable for them at the judgement.
There is a lot we do not know about punishment and how these degrees of punishment vary. But we do know that people who do not accept God’s message of salvation are lost and headed for judgment. We must never forget this. It shapes our attitude to life and gives us a passion to see the lost come to Christ. Paul expresses this passion as he contemplates the lostness of his fellow Jews: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:1-3).
Lostness and Evangelism. A vision of the lostness of people has been a key motivating factor in the ministries of some of the giants of evangelistic history. Hudson Taylor, said, “I would have never thought of going to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.” William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said he would wish his workers might spend “one night in hell” in order to see the urgency of their evangelistic task. D. L. Moody told an audience in London, “If I believed there was no hell, I am sure I would be off tomorrow for America.” He said he would give up going from town to town and spending day and night “urging men to escape the damnation of hell.”
Today there is so much resistance to those doing evangelism in most countries in Asia. We are described as arrogant, and as traitors to our nations; they say we are destroying the peace of communities which have existed with one religion for centuries. Therefore evangelists and believers are being assaulted and churches are being burned. In Sri Lanka some Christians, knowing that it is evangelism that is causing so much hostility, are even saying that they are not interested in converting those of other faiths. They want to disassociate themselves from the evangelicals.
In such an environment it would be so much easier to confine our evangelistic activities to nominal Christians; or to teach about evangelism rather than do it. The needs of our nations are so staggering that we could spend all our time meeting social needs and conveniently end up with no time left for evangelism. But the lostness of humanity apart from Christ drives us to evangelism.
GOD’S ANSWER: SALVATION THROUGH FAITH 3:21-31
After having outlined the problem with the human race (1:18-3:20), Paul proceeds to provide God’s answer to the problem. He points out that God in Christ has done all that is necessary to save us and that what we need to do is to exercise faith. The next section is rich with the use of some key words which describe Paul’s understanding of salvation.
Righteousness: God’s Saving Activity in Christ (3:21, 26). When Paul began his exposition of the lostness of humanity he said that, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). After expounding on lostness comprehensively he begins the next section saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). In this type of context Paul uses the word “righteousness” (dikaiosunē) to refer to “the process by which God acts to put people in right relationship with himself.”
In so doing God acts true to his nature, and acting true to ones nature is another aspect of the word righteousness. He is holy-love, and his holiness is expressed in his punishing Christ on our behalf and his love is manifested in his giving his son for our salvation. This aspect of righteousness in salvation is presented in verse 26 which says, “It was to show his righteousness (dikaiosunē) at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is just (or righteous: dikaion) when he justifies (dikaioō).
Paul goes on to say that God’s righteousness was “manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (3:21b). On the one hand there is a continuation with God’s action in salvation history. It is the same God who saved in OT times who saves now in Christ. So the law and the Prophets anticipated the salvation which Christ brought. On the other hand the words “apart from the Law” show that a completely new phase has come with the work of Christ.
Faith: Entrusting ourselves to God (3:22). Next Paul describes the new way of salvation as “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). Here Paul uses the noun (pistis) and the corresponding verb (pisteuō), translated “faith” and “believe” respectively. In verse 25 Paul says that God’s gift of grace is “to be received by faith.” Faith reverses what happened at the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve affirmed that they will trust in their own efforts and decisions for their salvation. Faith affirms that God can have the lordship of our lives and decide what is good and evil. To believe is equivalent to giving the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil back to God.
I like to tell the story of the little boy who went with his father for a walk to a park. He felt that he was old enough to walk on his own without the father’s assistance. So he tells his father to wait at a certain place while he walks alone. He goes a short distance and sees an unkempt man with long uncombed hair and dirty clothes. He immediately thinks that this is the “boogey man” who comes to take away naughty children. He turns and runs towards his father in terror. The father opens his arms wide and takes his son in and hugs him till his fear is gone. When the boy decided that he will not try to go it alone and turned to the father, he was there to accept him. Similarly God is there to accept us when we turn from our rebellion.
Many today are saying that it is unfair that a simple act of calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13) is all that is needed for a person to avoid damnation and receive salvation. But when you look at the wider context of the New Testament you realise that exercising saving faith is not simply just a case of mouthing a prayer to receive Christ. For example, Peter’s sermon, where this statement about calling on the name appears, has a call to “repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:38) indicating that calling on the name entails leaving behind ones old life and entrusting oneself to God. The other place where the statement about calling on the name of the Lord saved appears is Romans 10. There Paul says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Again what is implied is that there is a change of perspective to life: believing in the heart and confessing with the mouth.
Saving faith is not a work we do which merits salvation. Rather it is an admission that we cannot do any work to save ourselves and a decision to entrust ourselves to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to forgive us of our sins and grant us eternal life.
Justification: Being Treated as Righteous (3:24a) However, giving salvation to sinful humanity could not be simply achieved by a decision of God to forgive the sins which separate people from God. If God is to remain righteous when he saves sinners (as verse 26 said) then justice needs to be satisfied. The next few key words we will look at explain the justice of salvation. Verse 23 presents the sorry state of humanity under sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Next Paul brings in a legal word to describe the salvation which sinners receive: “…and are justified by his grace as a gift” (3:24a). The word to justify means “to make just.” This is a word that comes from the courts where when the accused are regarded as just when they are acquitted. They are treated “just as if” they had not sinned.
Leon Morris points out that this “is a legal term signifying acquittal, a fact that makes it unpalatable to many in our day.” The liberal tendency to downplay the penal substitution idea in connection with the death of Christ is illustrated in the rendering of justification in a new translation of the Bible in my language (Sinhala) as “bringing to relationship with God.” This correctly describes the result of justification but avoids the idea that a legal process had taken place where sinners were acquitted of their guilt by the merits of Christ’s death.
Theology explains the righteousness which the justified enjoy as “imputed righteousness,” meaning that the righteousness of Christ our substitute is made to apply to us so that we are now regarded as righteous. The book of Jeremiah describing the New Covenant says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34b). When a woman who had lived an immoral life understood for the first time the meaning of justification, she exclaimed, “In God’s sight I am a virgin.”
Grace: Unmerited Favour (3:24a). Paul says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift” (3:24a). Grace points to favour given to those who do not deserve it. We cannot merit it but we are given it based on the merits of Christ. Paul will go on to describe that merit as redemption. The following acrostic describes the meaning of grace well: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” which gives us G-R-A-C-E.
In our Asian cultures, however, it may be difficult for people to understand the idea of grace as most religious systems present ways of salvation through ones efforts. Indeed sometimes they have gods to help them. Usually, however, people go to the gods for help in solving problems like business challenges, examinations and sickness. The understanding is that ones way of salvation—whether it is understood in terms of Nirvana or whatever other goal a religion looks for—is something they must strive to achieve by their efforts. This presents us with the challenge of making them accept that they can do nothing for their salvation and that another could do what they could not do.
One way to meet this challenge is to show people that, though at first they may find the idea of salvation through substitution alien, it is an idea which is woven into the fabric of life here on earth. Most religious traditions have stories of people who died to save others. In fact sacrificing for others is one of the highest human values in any culture. If there is a God and if this God is the Supreme Being, wouldn’t we expect the highest sacrifice from the highest being? Most religions have practices which seek to transfer merit from one person to another. All of these are attempts to grope towards an expression of a value which all humans, made as they are in the image of God, have been born with. The idea of salvation through substitution agrees with the deepest human instincts. And it is our job as evangelists to, by the Holy Spirit, help surface that instinct so that they see the sensibility of the gospel.
Redemption: A Price is Paid (3:24b). Paul goes on to say that the “grace as a gift” which is given to us is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24b). The figure of redemption (Greek: apolutrōsis) which Paul is fond of using (see Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14) is taken from the marketplace where slaves are bought with a price. Jesus used a related figure when he said that he would “give his life as a ransom (Greek: lutron) for many” (Mark 10:45). The focus here is on the freedom we receive from the captivity of sin, through the price paid by Christ.
The story of the boy and his toy boat expresses the biblical idea of redemption beautifully. A boy had a toy boat which he loved very much because he himself had made it. He took it to a lake one day and let it float on the water. Suddenly a gust of wind came and carried the boat beyond the reach of the boy. Sadly the boy saw it go away from him until it was finally out of sight. Some days later he passed a shop and was surprised to see his boat on sale there. When he told the person at the shop that it was his boat, he was informed that he needed to pay for it if he was to get it. He worked hard at whatever jobs he could find until he was at last able to buy the boat. When he got the boat back he whispered to it, “You are twice mine. I made you, and now I have bought you.” Jesus did something like this for us when he died on the cross.
To whom was the redemption price paid? Earlier Christian thinkers like Origen (c. 185-c. 254), Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395), Gregory the Great (540-604) and Peter Lombard (c. 1095-c. 1164) said that it was to Satan. Bizarre theories of the transaction that took place between God and Satan were proposed. The advice of Leon Morris, perhaps the foremost evangelical expert today on the biblical teaching of the cross, is pertinent here. He believes that it is illegitimate to look for a recipient of the ransom. This is because “in the New Testament there is never a hint of a recipient.” Morris says, “We must understand redemption as a useful metaphor which enables us to see some aspects of Christ’s great saving work with clarity but which is not an exact description of the whole process of salvation. We must not press it beyond what the New Testament tells us about it.”
Often we speak of people paying a great price to achieve some goal. For example, a soldier pays the ultimate price of sacrificing his life for the nation. Usually we do not concern ourselves too much with the question of whom that price was paid to.
Propitiation: Taking away Wrath (3:25). After stating that justifying grace is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24), Paul describes Jesus as the one, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:25a). He goes on to say that this is another expression of the righteousness of God: “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (3:25b).
Propitiation is a figure that comes from the temple ritual. This word and its related words are used in the King James Version for the Greek words, hilasmos (noun: 1 John 2:2; 4.10), hilasterios (adjective: Rom. 3:25) and hilaskomai (verb: Heb. 2:17). The word propitiation is related to the rituals of the temple where sacrifices are given to turn away God’s wrath against sin. The meaning is well expressed in the rendering of 1 John 2:2 in The Living Bible, “He is the one who took God’s wrath against our sins upon himself, and brought us into fellowship with God….”
However, there is disagreement about the meaning of these Greek words in the New Testament. Evangelical scholars like Leon Morris have shown convincingly (to me) that the traditional interpretation as propitiation, meaning pacifying or turning away God’s wrath, is still valid. It is heartening to see some new translations like the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version, the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard Bible going back to using this difficult word. Indeed this may not be a suitable word to use in a version aimed at attracting outsiders to Christianity. But in a Bible believers use for study I think we should use this because of the richness of its meaning.
Instead of using propitiation scholars, like C. H. Dodd, prefer the idea of expiation which means to make amends for a wrong. This is reflected in translations like the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible and Revised Standard Version (The New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version use the more neutral “atoning sacrifice”).
Propitiation focuses on the seriousness of sin and God’s wrath against it which is borne by Jesus. Perhaps the reason why we find propitiation difficult to accept is because the doctrine of God’s wrath has been neglected by the church. Right through church history efforts have been made to tone down the biblical teaching of God’s wrath. In the second century Marcion tried to separate the loving Father of the New Testament from the supposedly vindictive God of the Old Testament. F. D. E. Schleiermacher and A. Ritschl in the nineteenth century and C. H. Dodd and A. T. Hanson in the twentieth century tried to divorce wrath from the essential nature of God. Dodd said that wrath is retained in the New Testament “not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe the inevitable process of retribution.”
So wrath became something like the law of karma: an impersonal process of cause and effect. Hanson looked at wrath as an impersonal character and said it “does not describe an attitude of God but a condition of men.” This view has been ably countered and shown to be not in keeping with the biblical witness. In both the Old and New Testaments wrath is considered part of the essential nature of God.
We will miss so much of the significance of Christ’s death if we take wrath out of the picture. We will also miss something of the freedom of forgiveness if we do not realize that God’s anger against our sin has been fully spent on Jesus.
Paul’s Strategy of Using Figures to Explain Christ’s Work. Paul’s use of so many figures to explain Christ’s work and its results gives us a key to how we can effectively communicate this message, especially in cultures where their idea of salvation through a substitutionary sacrifice is very different to the prevailing understanding of means to salvation. The list of figures used here and elsewhere in his Epistles is most impressive.
- Justification: from the law court.
- Redemption: from the market place.
- Propitiation: from the temple ritual.
In other passages in Paul’s Epistles and in the other Epistles we find the following figures.
- Reconciliation: from family life and friendship (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19).
- Triumph: from warfare (Col. 2:13-15)
- Cleansing or purification: from home life (Heb. 9:14; 1 John 1:7, 9).
We too can use different figures in our communication of the gospel. We can hope that, even though the idea of Christ’s work bringing salvation may seem strange to them at first, exposure to these figures will reinforce the idea of the atonement from different angles. In the process more and more of the meaning of what Christ has done will be communicated. They will see that the work of Christ agrees with their deepest instincts. We, of course, recognise these instincts as arising from vestiges of the image of God that still remain in every human being.
The Law of Faith Precludes Boasting (3:27-31). The next paragraph (3:27-31) is a transitional one where Paul prepares to address Jewish concerns. If there was a revelation from God before the work of Christ how does the way to salvation there compare with that which is revealed through Christ and his work? He first says that boasting is precluded because salvation is through faith and not works: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:27-28). Then he describes how salvation through faith in the work of Christ unites Jews and Gentiles: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-30).
This would bring up the question of what place the Jewish Law has in the economy of God’s dealings with humanity. Does the work of Christ contradict the teaching of the Law? Paul makes an affirmation about this here: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). He will explain this answer more fully in the next chapter and in subsequent chapters of Romans.
Even Old Testament People were Saved through Faith (4:1-25).
In chapter 4 of Romans Paul goes on to show that even in Old Testament times salvation was through faith. He shows that Abraham was credited as righteous not through his works but through believing in God (4:1-4). Then he has a small parenthesis on how David also celebrated this truth of people being forgiven and credited as righteous apart from works (4:6-8). He goes back to Abraham pointing out that he was justified even before he was circumcised (4:9-12).
Then in verses 13-25 Paul argues that “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (4:13). He shows how the law produces wrath not salvation (4:15). Elaborating more on Abraham’s crucial role in salvation history as the father of the faithful, Paul explains how he has become a father not only to Jews but to all who receive salvation through faith (4:16-24).
Paul closes this discussion by explaining once again what happened through the death and resurrection of Christ: “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:25). It is interesting to see how Paul criss-crosses between Abraham’s salvation and Christ’s work, almost as if to say that the work of Christ applies to Abraham also.
The idea that Christ’s sacrifice applies to Old Testament saints emerges from other sections of the Bible. Because it was an eternal sacrifice the efficacy of Christ’s work extended to all time: before and after Christ. So the book of Hebrews says that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:12). Hebrews also refers to “the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20). Peter, after speaking of the, “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot,” says, “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” At the time God created the world there was a cross in his heart.
Implied in all of this is the fact that provision was made for the sins committed even before Jesus died. When people were making sacrifices in an attitude of repentance God was forgiving them through the merits of the blood of Christ’s eternal covenant.
One thing that comes out loud and clear from this chapter is that the means to salvation in the New Testament is not as markedly different from the means to salvation in the Old Testament as many people think. The God of holy-love did not change his nature during the different eras of salvation history. The work of Christ brought to completion God’s way of saving people that was already operative in the sacrificial and legal system of the Jews.
SALVATION AND SUFFERING (5:1-11)
After expounding on the nature of salvation Paul goes on to discuss the issue of suffering. At first this seems to be out of place in a profound theological discourse on salvation. However we see that Paul discusses suffering after his discourse on sanctification in chapters 6-8 also (8:17-39). This should tell us that suffering is an issue that is basic to Christian theology.
Two basic questions which are answered by discussions on suffering after the expositions on salvation and sanctification in Romans are:
- If God has provided a way of salvation from sin then why do those who are saved still suffer? After all the Bible teaches that suffering is ultimately a consequence of sin coming to the world?
- If sanctification results from the filling of the Holy Spirit who now leads us in all that we do and directs all that happens to us, why does he allow sanctified people to go through such a hard time?
The religions of Asia have a lot to say about suffering. The Four Noble Truths of Asia’s biggest religion, Buddhism, form the basis of the Buddhist approach to life. The first truth is an affirmation that the reality of suffering is basic to existence. The concept of Dukkha in Buddhism is somewhat akin to the futility or frustration which Ecclesiastes and Romans 8:20-24 talk about. Buddhism and Hinduism present the suffering of individuals as being the result of negative karma accrued in previous lives. Many Buddhists feel that they have a superior answer to the mystery of suffering than the Christians do. Christianity says that the prevalence of suffering in the world is not primarily the result of individual sin but the result of the curse which came upon creation after the fall of humanity (Gen. 3; Rom. 8:20).
The distinctive feature of the biblical approach to suffering is not its philosophical reasoning on its causes, effects and cure. It is about how God makes a difference in a sufferer’s life. Far from being immune to suffering, the godly are promised suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. But there is a common thread that binds biblical, especially New Testament, reflection on suffering. That is the theme of joy. So it is not surprising that Paul begins his discourse on suffering with an affirmation that Christians rejoice in suffering (5:3).
Suffering and Joy (5:1-3). First Paul summarises the meaning of salvation which he had just finished expounding: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:1-2). Then he affirms that we rejoice in our sufferings: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…” (5:3).
I have counted 18 places in the New Testament where suffering and joy are connected. These passages come in all the different segments of the New Testament: The Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, the General Epistles and Revelation. In Romans 5 the word translated as “rejoice,” is not the usual verb for rejoicing (chairō). Instead it is a word (kauchaomai) which has more the idea of boasting, and taking pride in something. Of the 36 occurrences of this word in the New Testament, the NIV translates it as rejoice only on three occasions. Usually the word is translated something like “boast” or “brag” or “glory in.”
I think Paul’s choice of a word which basically means boasting is significant. Usually suffering is a cause for shame. It seems as if we are without God’s blessing, that we are failures. Sometimes people think that we are suffering because they have done something wrong. Just yesterday I was talking to a colleague who told me said his mother who is a godly woman is very sick. She has had a strong Christian witness in her predominantly non-Christian neighbourhood. Now her sickness has become a serious problem to many. Some are saying it disproves all that she has been saying about God. Others are saying that God will heal her because she is a faithful servant of Christ.
The problem is aggravated by the fact in Asia what initially caused many people who have come to Christ from other faiths to consider Christianity was the prospect of or the experience of God hearing their prayers and alleviating their suffering. In their appeal to people to come to Christ evangelists proclaim that Christ can solve all their problems.
Yet the Bible teaches that Christians will suffer. Christ’s basic call to discipleship was a call to suffering: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Note that the suffering is presented as a means to something good here. And that is the thrust of the biblical teaching about the suffering of individuals: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).
I believe that the biblical teaching about suffering is a key aspect of the gospel and could be one of the great attractions of Christianity to outsiders. The happiest people in the world are not those who do not suffer. They are those who are not afraid of suffering. And Christians have no need to be afraid of it because God who is sovereign over suffering works some good out of it and gives us his joy to be our strength while we go through it.
Therefore the Christian approach to suffering could be a powerful tool for evangelism. It is no secret that some who became Christians in the early years of the church were attracted by the way the Christian martyrs died. It is no accident that the word for someone who dies for the faith is “martyr’ which is so closely related to the Greek word for witness, marturia.
A Christian student, Susan, found that her first semester in university was very hard to endure. She was homesick, falling behind in her studies and ready to withdraw. After her first semester she went home for the Christmas holidays. When her roommate returned to the university after the holidays she announced to Susan that she had committed her life to Christ and that Susan’s life had been a major factor influencing that decision. “My life!” Susan responded, “What has there been in my life to make you want to be a Christian? I’ve been thoroughly depressed and discouraged.” Her roommate replied, “I observed the way you suffered.”
Five Reasons for Rejoicing in Suffering (5:2-11). Paul gives five reasons in this passage as to why Christians can rejoice in suffering. I will only briefly list them here.
- Rejoicing in the hope of glory (5:2)
- Rejoicing because God turns it to good (5:3-4)
- Rejoicing because of God’s love in us (5:5)
- Rejoicing because of God’s love for us (5:6-8)
- Rejoicing because of the salvation we experience (5:9-11).
Asia’s Distinctive Contribution? There is a lot of Christian writing today which gives therapy for suffering but not enough which gives theology for suffering. Consequently Christians are not equipped to face up to suffering. They suffer more than they should because they do not see it as a means through which God is going to bless them. Suffering becomes a source of disappointment to them.
Perhaps it is true to say that we in Asia encounter more suffering than Christians in the more affluent countries where they often have the facilities to escape from suffering. Sometimes they escape from suffering that comes along with their call, which means that the suffering causes them to abandon their call. We in Asia could be affected by this problem too. And the way Asian Christians are changing churches when they encounter problems is an indication that we have already been infected by attitudes which avoid the suffering that goes along with our commitments.
My prayer is that, without being infected by an escapist attitude to suffering, Asian Christians would distinguish themselves in the way they embrace suffering because of their commitments. I pray that Asian writers will enrich the church at-large by writing their theological reflections on suffering that have been forged out of a matrix of suffering. I hope that like Paul they will include discussions on suffering in their reflections on other topics like salvation, sanctification, mission, and community life. I believe that this could be the distinctive theological contribution that Asia can make to the world church.
What an amazing journey the first few chapters of Romans takes us on as we delve into the heart of Paul. Paul was a man passionate about the gospel. He said, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). It was Paul’s conviction of the urgent need for people to hear the gospel that drove him to become the great hero that he was.
The content of the gospel continues to be one of the greatest motivating factors to mission today. The Scottish theologian James Denney was once invited to speak at a missions meeting. Almost his whole talk was an explanation of the meaning of propitiation. The organisers of the meeting were rather mystified by Denney’s approach until he came to his conclusion. Denney said that if Christ’s work was indeed a propitiation for us, then this is a message that must be given to the whole world. That final punch really got through to the hearts of his hearers.
Evangelicals have got their name because of their commitment to the gospel (Greek: euangelion). May we be true evangelicals: passionate for the gospel and paying the price to see it proclaimed on earth.
 Unless otherwise stated the Scripture quotations in this paper are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
Cited in R. H. Mounce, “Gospel,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 472 (I have modernized Tyndale’s archaic English language).
 Cited in John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982), p. 324.
 Ajith Fernando, Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers and Manila: Life Change Publishing, 2001), chapter 14, “Those who have not Heard.”
 Cited in Stanley N. Gundry, Love Them in: the Life and Theology of D. L. Moody (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976 [reissued by Chicago: Moody Press]), p. 97-98.
 Douglas J. Moo, NIV Application Commentary, New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) from the Pradis software version.
 Leon Morris, “Justification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), p. 441.
 See H. D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 138-146.
 Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), p. 129.
Morris, Apostolic Preaching, pp. 125-185. Morris’ ideas are presented in a simpler form in his book, The Atonement, pp. 151-176.
C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935); and The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932).
C. H. Dodd, Romans, p. 23.
A. T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb (London: SPCK, 1959), p.110.
See Gustav Stahlin, “orge,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. V, edited by Gerhard Friedrich, translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), p. 427-429; Morris, Apostolic Preaching, pp. 129-36, 161-66 and Ajith Fernando, Crucial Questions about Hell (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994 and Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991), chapter 10, “Wrath versus Love.”
 From Leighton Ford, Good News is for Sharing (Elgin, IL.: David C. Cooke Publishing Co. 1977), pp. 106-07.