We have begun Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  To understand this great book, we should review Paul’s standing when he writes it.

Paul was infamous.  Acts 9:1-2 records, “[Paul], still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  He was a furious opponent of Christianity.

Yet, Acts 9 goes on to record how Paul was stopped on the way to Damascus by Jesus, how he was blinded, how he repented, how he was given his sight back, how he was baptized.  Paul became a Christian.  Jesus called Paul not only to follow Him, but to speak for Him as His apostle.   Paul later humbly minimized his apostleship as one “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8).  But it was important for the Gospel of forgiveness to have an apostle who was first an enemy but then fully forgiven.  “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Still, Paul was infamous.  He had persecuted and murdered Christians.  God forgave him.  Christians forgave him.  “They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’  And they glorified God because of me.” (Galatians 1:23-24).  Yet there were those who did not trust him.  Paul’s opponents tried to drive a wedge between the Gospel Paul preached and the Gospel of the church in Jerusalem.

Paul found that he would preach Jesus in one place only to find that others came and tried to undo the work he had done.  The churches in Galatia were led to doubt that they were saved by believing what Paul taught.  He wrote an impassioned letter (Galatians), urging those churches to hold firm to what he had taught.

Eventually, a council of Christian pastors and apostles met in Jerusalem to decide the issue (Acts 15).  Peter and James agreed with Paul and Barnabas.  The church should be able to unite around their united testimony.

But false teachers did not simply lay down and give up.  They continued to slander Paul and his message.  They gave a false picture of Paul’s teaching in cities he had not even visited yet.

Most important of all cities in the ancient world of that day was Rome.  Paul had tried to get there but had not been able.  So he wrote a great letter to the churches in Rome.  He wanted them to hear how he preaches the Gospel of Jesus in his own words.

Romans and Galatians, at heart, give the same message.  Where Galatians is fiery and personal and rushed, Romans is methodical and formal and calm.  Paul responds to potential objections.  Someone might hear Paul’s message of forgiveness and think, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”  Paul answers, “By no means!” and then explains through chapter 6.

This makes Romans an important letter for us today.  All of Paul’s other epistles come to congregations he knew personally and for whom he had already laid out his Gospel.  Those epistles respond to questions or situations.  Romans is Paul’s definitive statement of what he preaches.

And it is a glorious statement!  This letter was foundational for Luther as he came to rediscover the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone.  “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

In Romans, Paul teaches that we are all sinners in need of grace (Romans 1-3).  The law of God (all the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”) teach us how sinful we are.  “Through the commandment [sin] might become sinful beyond measure” (Romans 7:13).  The law does not save us, but reveals our need for salvation.  Once that need dawns on us, God reveals His grace and mercy, giving salvation as a free gift.  “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled” (Romans 8:3-4).  Jesus dies in our place, the new Adam who represents us in overcoming the tempter and winning new life (Romans 5:12-21).

Romans also explains what then God was doing for all those years teaching the Jews the law and circumcision and sacrifice.   Abraham was shown to be father of all the faithful (Romans 4), the law still reveals sin (Romans 7), and Israel is still called to be saved (Romans 11).  Most importantly, the failure of some Israelites was not in what God gave them, but “because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:32).

For Paul, a good work that is motivated by an attempt to earn merit is corrupted and not a good work.  If someone pays you a compliment just to “butter you up” for a request, you don’t feel the compliment was made out of love or respect.  So it is with God.  If I try to love my neighbor just because I have to, I’m not really loving my neighbor.  “Let love be genuine” (Romans 12:9).

Good works, however, are true, when they are motivated by faith.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  When I trust in God’s generosity, that faith flows out into actions of generosity towards others.  When I trust I forgiven much, that faith means I can and will forgive much.

Paul knew this change first hand.  He had tried to please God by zeal for the law.  It led to him murdering Christians.  Despite knowing the law inside and out, he still struggled with his own sinfulness.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Only in Jesus did he find freedom from condemnation (Romans 8:1).

Paul was infamous in the world, but before God he was forgiven, made holy, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Thanks be to God, that work is not only done in Paul, but a gift for each of us in Christ Jesus.