The introduction of chapter one is filled with theological weight, the likes of which we won’t dive deeply into, rather in keeping with our principle for this study, are going to break it down in as meaningful and yet simple as we can. The Apostle is presenting his credentials as among those sent by Jesus himself. We can recall in Acts, Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. After which Jesus tells Ananias that Paul was his to be sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15).
Paul here is telling his audience that he is among the twelve Apostles who were given in person the great commission by Jesus, which gives him what we call Apostolic Authority. To have Apostolic Authority required the person to have been specifically called by Christ (Matthew 10:1-7, Acts 1:24-26, Galatians 1:1), and they had to have seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:22, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:7-9).
Later in the late 2nd century, Irenaeus began (at least) the development of what would become the Roman Catholic doctrine of Apostolic Succession, a doctrine meant to give to Rome the idea of an unbroken line of succession from the apostles to the bishops (eventually culminating in the Bishop of Rome in the fifth century). While it is important to recognize Apostolic Authority, the concept of succession is not taught in Scripture.
This is not about a history lesson, and so the simple point we will make here is that the difference between adherence to Apostolic Authority and Apostolic Succession is that in the first one, we are acknowledging that we obey the teachings of the Apostles as found in sacred Scripture, the ladder doctrine is meant to maintain the idea that the authority of the Apostles Peter and Paul are still maintained and given to the bishops, and hence require the Christian to follow their authority as if they themselves were the Apostles.
The Attributes of the Gospel
What follows in verse 2-6 is an excellent summary of everything Paul is about to break down in an entire epistle we know today as the Book of Romans. What we want to do here is break down the summary into what I will call the seven key components (this is not meant to be “coincidental” to the letter seven) that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is based on.
- The Gospel is God’s: This means that the gospel is not a man-made story, it was not another Greek mythological story to ponder upon; it is through and through God’s possession, and hence it is not something that human beings have any right to tamper with or make additions or subtractions to. Paul is claiming that his gospel is not coming from his own philosophical ponderings, but from the God of the universe.
- The Gospel is Revealed by Scripture: Scripture is the infallible rule of faith; it does not err (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and the Gospel does not diverge or stray from the authority of Scripture. You recall several times in Jesus’s ministry where he seems to go out of his way to do things and for what purpose? “In order that the Scriptures may be fulfilled”. Clearly then the Gospel’s message and power cannot be separated from the divine revelation of Scripture.
- The Gospel is about Jesus: Jesus Christ is the central component of the gospel; it orbits him. It is only through him and of him that any man or woman comes to God in peace. The resurrected Lord, walking with his disciples, goes through all the Scriptures (the Old Testament) to show them what? How everything was pointing to himself. It is in him and by him that the keys to all revelation are unlocked.
- The Gospel is Covenantal: Though this is a point of great contention, it’s imperative for Christians to see a covenantal nature in Scripture. Jesus “descended from the line of David” in order to fulfill what was necessary concerning the promises of God to redeem man. It was through those covenants, built on top of each other that culminate in the Incarnation, who fulfills them all and gives the blessings of those covenant fulfillments to his people by what we call Imputed Righteousness (a doctrine we will discuss in chapter 4).
- Salvation in the Gospel is a Work of God: Jesus was guided in all his ministry by the Holy Spirit, and he was raised from the dead by the Spirit who likewise empowers all believers to believe, to repent and to endure all suffering and trials. No Christian has any room to boast in their own strength; instead they are strengthened the more they recognize they are weak and lean on the Lord and His Spirit for guidance.
- The Resurrection Confirms the Promises: The Resurrection of Christ assures Christians of the promise of redemption. Firstly that his resurrection proves that God has accepted the sacrifice and this guarantees the Christian that he, having those promises Christ has attained for him, will likewise be raised with him to eternal life once all death is defeated at the end of time.
- This Gospel is for all Believers, Jew or Gentile: The gospel that Paul explains in these few verses he now says is for the Roman believers; this means by application that it extends to all believers in Christ, whether in his day, before his day, or in the days to come.
The Fellowship of Believers
After Paul clarifies his gospel and what it is, he goes from this point to share his greetings with the Roman believers and his great desire to visit them (which likely never happened). We learn in these next few verses what it looks like for a true Christian to behave. They love the brethren, they desire to be among the brethren, and they pray for the brethren for the simple reason that Christians are all part of the body of Christ; they are one and many. We share the same Spirit in Christ, and hence we have the same experiences in many ways and the same struggles.
There is no such thing as a Christian who has no way of identifying with the body of Christ. They may be new believers who are unsure for a time, but they will always grow, and the more they grow, the more they will desire to be among the brethren and to pray for one another and to encourage one another. This does not mean Christians get together and have normal conversations as they would with those who are not Christians, such as sports, daily housing chores and bills to pay and politics, or entertainment. While these are not inherently sinful, what Christians desire is true, godly fellowship that involves godly conversations.
How often have you been in a godly conversation? I mean the kind of a conversation with a fellow believer, eye-to-eye, talking about the deep mysteries of God, talking theology, talking about God’s work in Scripture and in the world and in your own lives? And the conversation seems to make you blissful of time as you seem to be taken out of it? How often do you have those conversations? Those are the conversations Christians are to strive for, because they, as Paul says here “reap harvest” and “impart gifts”. The point here is that Christians that are engaged in this kind of fellowship may not realize it, but they are encouraging one another, building one another up, blessing each other with such wonderful discussions that please the Lord. This is why the local church is so important.
There is also another thing we see here at the very end of this section, which is found in verse 15: the eagerness to preach the gospel. Christians should love to talk about the gospel, because it is in the gospel of Jesus Christ that they have hope and redemption and can return to God in Christ. The gospel is, as Paul is about to say next, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.
The Righteousness of God
And indeed that is where we go next: the power of the gospel. Some may see what Paul is saying here as strange, as if he has now completely shifted from those wonderful blessings of Christian fellowship to now getting serious, and turning his gaze completely to a different subject, but he actually is not. In fact, that’s an excellent transition point to begin systematically going through what the gospel is.
What we learn here in this infamous passage of Romans 1:17, is a pre-introduction to one of the most crucial doctrines of the gospel; arguably the awakening doctrine of the Reformation in the 16th century. It is here that the German monk Martin Luther discovered the gospel of Jesus Christ, that he is justified by faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and that he is now to walk in that faith. Luther described this experience as if the doors of paradise had suddenly flung open and he walked through. Luther also said that this doctrine, the doctrine of justification by faith alone (in the Latin, Sola Fide), is “the hinge upon which the Church stands or falls”.
The Suppression of the Ungodly
But that was a small taste of what is to come. Right now, Paul’s main point is not to expound on justification, but to make a contrast between the righteous and the unrighteous, because the gospel has a two-sided coin as it were (see 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15).
We begin with verse 18 on to the end of chapter 1, and I want us to focus on verse 18, because it is extremely important in how every Christian is to deal with the worldview of all the pagan religions around them, even in our 21st century context. We must understand that according to Scripture, all those who reject the message of the gospel, and the call to repent of sin never do so because of substantial, justifiable reasons, but as a result of their unrighteousness and sinful minds. They are pagan idolaters who love their sin, and behind all the arguments, and all the clever tactics are the desire to simply not want to think about the things of God.
John Calvin said “the human heart is a constant factory of idols”. In his book, the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (impersonating Screwtape) insists in the very first chapter that the way to keep the “patient” (the human Wormwood is trying to entice into damnation) from coming to God (whom Screwtape calls “The Enemy”) is not by legitimate, rational argumentation, but by jargon and the constant filling of the Patient’s mind and life with ordinary things around him; his job, his family, and society. In other words, it is not by genuine examination of the facts of the world that one denies God’s existence and power in the world, but by suppressing the truth of God.
This is key in dealing with non-believers; Christians are given no justification for ever looking at anyone, whether they are Muslim, Mormon, atheist, or any other thing, as though that person is truly giving sufficient reason for not believing in the revelation of God found in Scripture. They are suppressing the truth in their sinful lifestyles. This does not mean that we simply ignore all their arguments for their convictions (which certainly are real). But convictions are not the same thing as reality. I may share a great, and powerful conviction that the sky is green, but that conviction does not make it so. Instead, the conviction may actually make me come up with foolish arguments to explain away the obvious reality of the color of the sky.
In more simple terms, those that deny the God of Scripture and His gospel call to the world to repent and believe do so by an inconsistent worldview that they cannot faithfully adhere to. They must always borrow from a Christian worldview to make their own work.
It is the task of all Christians to be able to, by the grace of God, see through the arguments presented by the outside world and see the presuppositions being made and then demonstrate their faultiness so that the sinner is left “without excuse”. You are taking their excuses away so that they must stand bare and naked before a holy God, and that, Lord willing, they will seek hope in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But what follows from verse 18 are descriptors Paul uses to illustrate what happens to those that suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They are “given over” by God to all sorts of wickedness, sinking further and further into the idolatry and worship of the creation instead of the Creator.