Apostolic Goals

Text: Romans 1:8-15

The Apostle Paul was anxious to see Rome (who wouldn’t be , you say!), but not for the purpose of sightseeing—he wanted to see a small group of people who were Christians, and, as Martin Lloyd-Jones has observed, that actually tells us a lot about the Apostle Paul. “Once a man becomes a Christian it becomes the dominating feature in his life; all people, henceforward, and all other interests are judged in the light of this. It is not that the Christian ceases to be interested in culture in general. He is interested. But long and far before that, he is interested in Christian people, in seeing them, and in having fellowship with them.”[1] Paul wanted to see the Church in Rome firmly established and built up. He fully expected them (and Christians elsewhere, including us) to be able to understand this epistle. However, according to one of the leading advocates of what is called “The New Perspective on Paul” everyone from Augustine on (this includes the Reformers, the Westminster Divines to present day advocates of the Reformed tradition) badly misunderstood the thrust of this epistle and the Apostle’s doctrine of justification! Who would make such an outrageous claim?

N. T. Wright is considered one of the leading New Testament scholars who, by the way, does not hesitate to call himself an evangelical. He affirms the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ and that the Bible is, in a very special sense, the Word of God. Wright has been heralded by such evangelical publications as Christianity Today[2] and surprisingly enough The Reformation and Revival Review, which is edited by John Armstrong,[3] and by Doug Wilson in the pages of Credenda/Agenda.[4] Though it is often assumed that the gospel is a “system of how people get saved,” Wright insists that this seriously misrepresents the real meaning of the gospel.[5] The gospel, Wright argues does not answer the question of the guilty sinner, “How can I find favor with God?” (Compare, e.g., Luther), but rather it answers the question, “Who is Lord?” Wright seeks to prove that one of the unfortunate features of the Reformation and much evangelical thinking is that it reduces the gospel to “a message about ‘how one gets saved,’ in an individual and a historical sense.”[6] In this kind of thinking, the focus of attention, so far as the gospel is concerned is upon “something that in older theology would be called an ORDO SALUTIS, an order of salvation.”7 According to Wright, this kind of an approach can only distort Paul’s gospel and fails to do justice to the broader historical background and significance of Christ’s saving work. All of the focus in this approach to the gospel is narrowly fixed upon the issue of the individual’s relationship with God, and not upon the reach of God’s world-transforming power proclaimed in the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. Because of this inappropriate focus upon the salvation of individual sinners, the older Reformation tradition was bound to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of justification. Contrary to Luther, who called the doctrine of justification by faith alone “the article on which the church stands or falls,” Wright contends that it is nothing of the sort.8 This prompted noted Oxford historian Alister McGrath to declare that if Wright is right, the Reformers were wrong!9 The notion that up until the scholars behind the New Perspective came along in the 20th century no one could possibly understand Romans unless they were experts in the literature of Second Temple Judaism is, in my opinion,  the height of audacious arrogance.

I.          Paul’s Thanksgiving – Their Reputation:  “The purest treasure mortal times afford,” wrote Shakespeare “is spotless reputation.”10 The Roman Christian had a sterling reputation and it caused the Apostle to celebrate. But note, as Calvin has, Paul’s language: “Paul commends their faith in such a way as to imply that it had been received from God. From this we learn that faith is a gift of God.”11

II.         Paul’s Sincerity – His Oath and Witness:  Paul’s gratitude for the Roman Christians is underscored by calling God as his witness. This is a form of oath and a very strong one. The Apostle often employs such language (cf. II Corinthians 1:23; 11:31; Galatians 1:20; I Thessalonians 2:5). This was, however, always done with great reverence and for a holy purpose. God is his witness because it is God that Paul serves in the preaching of the gospel.

III.        Paul’s Prayer – According to God’s Will:  “The sign of the earnestness of prayer,” wrote Adolf Schlatter, “is that it is practiced ADIALEIPTOS, that is without interruptions, not merely occasionally but incessantly.”12 His specific request is that God would make it possible for Paul to visit the Church in Rome. He had attempted on more than one occasion to visit Rome, but was always thwarted (1:13; 15:22-25). God had not allowed this to come to pass—Paul was needed elsewhere.

IV.       Paul’s Design – The Ministry of Strengthening:  There is, on the Apostle’s part, a deep and strong desire for the well-being of the Church at Rome. The language of the NIV at this point (verse 11) gives the misleading impression that Paul wishes to impart to them some kind of spiritual gift (i.e., like those mentioned in I Corinthians 12). That is not the point. There is no reason to think that Paul is here referring to special gifts of ministry. Rather, he wants to build them up in their spiritual life and strengthen them in their faith (cf. Romans 5:15 where the word gift is used in a wider sense as well. Compare I Peter 4:10; I Corinthians 7:7).

V.        The Need to Know – I Would Not Have You Ignorant:13  The Christians in Rome may have often wondered, “Why does the Apostle Paul not come to Rome?” Paul wants them to know that it wasn’t due to any lack of desire or effort on his part. It is worthwhile to note that even the Apostle Paul was often frustrated in his plans and had, like the rest of us, to wait on God’s timing (cf. I Corinthians 3:5-9).

VI.       The Need to Preach – The Whole Gospel to the Whole World:  Paul was highly motivated to come to Rome in order to discharge his duty as an Apostle of Christ, i.e., to preach the gospel. Note how this is stated.

A.        The Range of Paul’s Preaching:  “To Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish…” If you have an older translation it may read “to the Greeks and to Barbarians.” A Barbarian was simply a non-Greek speaker.14 The word translated foolish is ANOETOS and refers to someone who is incapable or unwilling to comprehend what he is told. What does this tell us? Simply this, Paul did not alter his message or his preaching because of the uneducated nature of his audience. “He proclaims the message to everyone, whether or not they are willing to understand him, and then forgoes the lecture hall in which only those eager to learn gathered around him.”15

B.        The Evangelistic Zeal of Paul’s Preaching: There is a distinctive note of boldness in verse 15. The Apostle did not fear opposition to his preaching. He fully expected that some would oppose him—and violently so (cf. Acts 20:23). He was ready to preach the gospel in any circumstance. He owed the gospel to those in Rome—a city of splendor and culture, but one full of sin and wickedness. It was the center of power in the ancient world—and Paul was ready to preach the gospel in such a city.

Conclusion: Life was no stroll through the park for first-century Christians, especially those in Rome. They needed to be strong in the faith and rooted and grounded in sound doctrine (Ephesians 6:10; Colossians 2:2-5; I Timothy 4:16; 6:3; II Timothy 2:1; 4:1-5; Titus 2:1). Things are not different today. We do not face the kind of open and physical persecution they were called to endure (we may one day have to). But the same need (and it should be a felt need!) to be strong in our Christian faith remains the same. We need to have this same apostolic desire—to see the church strengthened and encouraged in the truth of the gospel. Let this be our prayer for our church and for Christians everywhere. May God direct our hearts so that we too will share Paul’s concern for the well-being of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

References:

 


[1]           D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans I (Zondervan, 1985), p.181.

 

[2]           Christianity Today (Feb. 8, 1999).

 

[3]           Reformation and Revival Journal (Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2002) What is so surprising is that this issue actually dealt with the doctrine of Justification. Two articles “Sounding the Alarm: N. T. Wright and Evangelical Theology” by Travis Tamerius and “N. T. Wright and Reformed Theology: Friend or Foes?” by Rick Lusk, both defended Wright and sanctioned his understanding of justification. More recently Lusk has further distanced himself from the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but contends that his position i.e., denying the covenant of works as well as the active and passive obedience of Christ being imputed to the elect is somehow compatible with the Westminster Standards. This is astounding. (cf. see his “A Response to the Biblical Plan of Salvation” in the Auburn Avenue Theology Pro’s and Cons Debating the Federal Vision, ed. by E. Calvin Beisner (Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), pp. 118-148. John Armstrong’s lead editorial, actually made this rather astonishing statement in light of Wright’s proposal. “I believe the time is right for biblical theology to correct errors on both sides (Protestant and Catholic) of this historic divide.”(p. 8).

 

[4]           “A Pauline Take on The New Perspective,” Credenda/Agenda, special edition (Vol. 15, No. 5) 2004. Wilson actually contends that the New Perspective is really not new at all, but an alternative to the Old Perspective and as such is closer to the Reformed faith! (p. 18) In the minds of Wilson and Armstrong the real culprit of the Old Perspective is none other than Martin Luther! If I may be so bold, Armstrong and Wilson are woefully ignorant in this area. Noted Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck (who both Armstrong and Wilson acknowledge as being one of the greatest theologians of all time) writes rather forcefully that the Lutheran and the Reformed understanding of sola fide are identical. Cf. his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek IV (Kampen, 1967), pp. 182-186. An English translation by J. Vriend, ed. J. Bolt is presently underway. Vol. 1, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Baker, 2003) has been released.

 

[5]           N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997),

p. 45.

 

[6]               Ibid. p. 60.

 

7               Ibid. p. 40.

 

8               Ibid. p. 115.

 

9           As cited in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, ed. Carey Newman (IVP, 1999), p. 169.

 

10         King Richard II, Act 1, Scene 1, The Works of William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1936). You may remember as well the famous line of Othello who cried after the dirty deed, “I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial!” (Othello, Act II, Scene 3).

 

11             Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries VIII, ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (Eerdmans, 1973),

p. 20. Doug Moo makes this very helpful observation: “Nothing is implied in this about their faith being particularly strong; it is the very fact of their faith that is sufficient reason for giving thanks to God, the author of faith (cf. Ephesians 1:16; Colossians 1:3; I Thessalonians 1:2; II Thessalonians 1:3; Philemon 4), The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary Romans 1-8 (Moody, 1991), p. 52.

 

12             A. Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God, translated by S. S. Schatzmann (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 14.

 

13         The expression OU THELO DE HUMAS AGNOEIN (“I do not want you to be unaware” in the NIV) is an expression Paul uses three other times (Romans 11:25; I Corinthians 10:1; 12:1). “He uses this expression as a rule when he is introducing his readers to something they might not be expected to know but which he regards as important.” L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1988), p. 62.

 

14         BARBAROS, literally means speaks BAR-BAR- an unintelligible language to Greek ears! Barbaros is an example of onomatopoeia, i.e. a word formed by imitating the sound associated with an object or action. The word came to be associated with uneducated and uncultured people. Cf. W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (rpt. Royal, n.d.), p. 90.

 

15         Schlatter, p. 16.

Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible

Sola Scriptura , the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, is essential to genuine Christianity, for it declares that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the church’s only rule of faith and practice. Yet this doctrine is under assault today as never before, both from outside and and inside the church.

In this book, several leading Reformed pastors and scholars, including Joel Beeke, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Ray Lanning, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Derek W. H. Thomas, and James White, unpack the meaning of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura  (Scripture alone). They also explain where the attacks on the Bible are coming from and show how those who accept the Bible as Gods inspired Word should respond. Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible  is a treasure trove of information and a comfort to those who grieve to see the twenty-first-century church wandering away from the safe harbor of the Bible.

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